Members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees protest at the Alberta Legislature against Bill 45 & 46 in late November. [Alberta Union of Provincial Employees]
The Alberta government’s recent hasty passage of Bills 45 and 46 — legislation that muzzles freedom of speech, and strips public sector workers of their long-established right to a binding arbitration process — has spurred furious protests on the steps of the provincial legislature, court challenges, and complaints of unfair bargaining to the Alberta Labour Relations Board.
Bill 45, the Public Sector Services Continuation Act, which hasn’t yet taken effect, puts in place stiffer penalties against unions for any illegal strike or “any act that could be reasonably seen as preparation for a strike.” Penalties include suspension of union dues, an increase in fines from $1,000 to $250,000 a day and a new daily $1 million liability levy for employers to recover costs.
Additionally, the legislation allows the government to target and fine members of the public for voicing support for illegal strikes or “strike threats.”
Bill 46, the Public Service Salary Restraint Act that took effect Dec. 11, legislates a wage deal for 22,000 frontline government employees by Jan. 31, 2014 if a collective agreement isn’t reached before then with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. The restraint act also eliminates the option of interest arbitration to resolve bargaining disputes. The AUPE and the Public Service Commissioner have been bargaining for a new collective agreement since March 2013.
The proposed four-year terms call for a wage freeze during the first two years of the deal, an $875 lump-sum payout in the second year, and a one per cent increase in the third and fourth years. In addition, all terms and conditions of employment from the parties’ previous collective agreement will be automatically rolled over, with no changes, for the four years of the new agreement.
AUPE president Guy Smith noted that government workers in Alberta have not had the legal right to strike since 1977, but until last month had the right to send contract disputes to binding arbitration. Bill 46 does not return the right to strike to workers.
“Under these conditions, it’s like going through negotiations with a baseball bat on the table, knowing that at the end of the day the employer can just impose the deal they want,” Smith said.
The AUPE is challenging Bill 45 at the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, arguing its terms violate rights to speech and association freedoms guaranteed in sections 2 and 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and requesting it be struck down.
The province entered a statement of defense to the challenge in early January, claiming the union doesn’t have standing to seek protection under the Charter, nor the right to bring a legal action under it on behalf of individual AUPE members.
The province also argues the law “does not deprive individual AUPE members of the right to associate,” does not violate the Charter, and requests dismissal of the claim.
AUPE has also filed a bad-faith bargaining complaint over Bill 46 with the Alberta Labour Relations Board, with hearings set to proceed through January. The complaint alleges both breach of fundamental Charter rights, and that the government’s actions have made a “mockery” of fundamental principles underlying the Public Service Employee Relations Act, which governs public sector labour relations in the province.
A TV ad campaign denouncing the Conservative government’s tactics and labelling Premier Alison Redford a bully, after “the Alberta Conservatives used their majority to ram through Bills 45 and 46,” was launched by the Alberta Federation of Labour, which speaks for about 145,000 of the province’s unionized workers.
“If she thinks that threats, bullying and intimidation will stop workers from standing up for themselves and up against her senseless agenda of cuts and rollbacks in the midst of prosperity, she has another thing coming,” said AFL president Gil McGowan. He says both bills violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the union will also be taking legal action.
McGowan warned the court challenge based on Charter arguments could take years to resolve, and called on Albertans across the province to stand together in the interim, united against the diminishment of workers’ rights.