EDMONTON (CP) — Alberta’s United Conservative government has formally served notice it is bringing in legislation to override bargained contract agreements and delay wage talks for thousands of public sector workers.
The move led to heated debate in the house Wednesday, with Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley accusing Finance Minister Travis Toews of a “gross abuse of power.’’
“This government didn’t say a word about breaching the Constitution to break the law in order to steal money from nurses in the last election,’’ Notley told the house.
Toews replied that all options, including legislation, are on the table as he and his staff work to find savings to eradicate Alberta’s annual multibillion-dollar budget deficits.
“Albertans expect us to be responsible with their hard-earned tax dollars,’’ said Toews.
“We’re also committed to working together in good faith with the public sector as we work to ensure we can deliver high-quality services to Albertans.
“This delay is the responsible path forward and we believe Albertans will support it.’’
Earlier Wednesday, Government House Leader Jason Nixon informed the house that the government intends to bring in the Public Sector Wage Arbitration Deferral Act.
The issue involves unionized workers who took pay freezes in the first two years of their contracts but now have the right in the third and final year to have the wage portion reopened and subject to binding arbitration if necessary.
The workers affected come from across the province, and include nurses, social workers, hospital support staff, prison guards, conservation officers, toxicologists, restaurant inspectors, therapists and the sheriffs who protect the politicians and staff in the legislature.
Toews said the government wants to delay those talks and arbitration until an independent panel, headed by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, reports by August 15 on ways the province can save money to get the budget back into balance.
MacKinnon, in a co-authored research paper, has previously argued Alberta should look at cutting public sector wages to save money.
The wage legislation plan came up earlier this week when the NDP released a leaked letter dated May 16 from Toews’ ministry to public sector unions.
The letter asks for union input on delaying wage reopener talks but said legislation would be used if necessary.
United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) has labelled the move unfair and heavy handed by a government that believes it is above the law.
Notley told reporters that Toews’ promise to work in good faith with unions is the opposite of his actions.
“The minister is not acting in good faith with unions when he first threatens them with legislation and then brings in legislation,’’ said Notley.
“He is also not acting in good faith when he ignores the legally binding collective agreement to which he is a party.’’
The legislation comes after the province tried in recent weeks to get wage reopener talks delayed by arbitrators handling talks at the table with the nurses’ union and with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.
The results were mixed.
The arbitrator granted the delay in the nurses’ talks, but the one handling the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) talks rejected it.