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Union to fight new labour laws

Legal crackdown unlikely to quell strikes, says scholar

By: Kevin Ma

  |  Posted: Friday, Dec 06, 2013 03:15 pm

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Alberta’s biggest union has launched a legal challenge of a pair of “draconian” bills that crack down on illegal strikes – a crackdown one scholar says might backfire for the province.

Bills 45 and 46 passed third reading in the provincial legislature this week. The bills, which were loudly opposed by unions and opposition parties, crank up fines for illegal strikes and could impose a two-year wage freeze on some 22,000 government workers who are members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (or AUPE, Alberta’s largest union).

The AUPE’s contract with the province expired last March. The union later broke off talks and (as its members cannot legally strike) called for compulsory arbitration.

Finance Minister Doug Horner, who sponsored Bill 46, said the legislation is about getting a fair settlement for all Albertans. “We were very clear with the unions up front this year – very clear – that we were looking at triple zeros and two,” he said, referring to annual salary increases for the next four years.

The province had negotiated a deal with teachers and doctors, he continued, and wants a negotiated deal with the AUPE.

Bill 46 would impose a two-year wage freeze on AUPE members followed by two one per cent raises if the province and the union don’t negotiate a deal by the end of January.

“We did not legislate the deal,” he insisted. “We legislated a timeline for a deal.”

This would override the compulsory arbitration process that the AUPE has initiated.

This bill is meant to bring wages back in line with those of other provinces, Horner said.

“Our public sector salaries are very, very competitive right now,” he said, with his research suggesting that top public sector employees earn more than their private sector equivalents.

Studies by the Canadian Labour Congress suggest that unionized workers generally make $4.60 an hour more than non-unionized ones in Alberta, a bit below the national average difference of $4.97. While unionized wages in Alberta were the highest in Canada (about 12 per cent above the national union average), the same was also true of non-unionized Alberta wages (which were about 16 per cent above the national non-union average).

Bill 45 cranks up fines for illegal strikes, which are strikes done without a proper strike vote or by firefighters, hospital workers or government employees (who cannot legally strike).

Under the old Labour Relations Code, for example, unions who call or threaten an illegal strike can be fined up to $1,000 per day. Bill 45 allows the province to fine unions $250,000 per day plus $50 times the number of union members per day of an illegal strike or threat, and lets a court order them to pay $1 million a day into a liability fund if the strike or threat continues after it’s ordered to stop.

Last April’s illegal strike of correctional workers shows that these fines need to be updated, Horner said.

“For 30 years, we have never done that,” he said.

Bills “draconian”: Smith

AUPE president Guy Smith denounced both bills as “draconian” and said they impinge upon AUPE members’ right to freedom of association.

The AUPE filed a complaint about both bills with the Alberta Labour Relations Board Thursday and also plans to take the bills up with the United Nations’ International Labour Organization. It will also challenge the bills before the Court of Queen’s Bench when they became law, Smith said.

It’s been the law since 1977 that the government employees go to arbitration in the event talks break down, which is what has happened, Smith said.

“The Redford government has just ripped (that law) up.”

Negotiating with Bill 46 in play is like going into talks with a gun on the table, he said, as it lets the government decide the outcome.

“That’s not free collective bargaining.”

He called Bill 45 “overkill” as it lets the province levy crippling fines when it already has heavy ones available. (Last April’s strike lead to a $350,000 fine.)

“It’s very Orwellian in many ways,” he said, referring to its penalties for strike threats.

The province appears to have brought in Bill 46 to show it can hold the line on expenses, said James Muir, president of the Alberta Labour History Institute.

“One of the ways it wants to do this is by making sure there’s a salary freeze,” he said.

Since the government wasn’t going to get that through bargaining or arbitration, it passed this law, he said.

It’s unclear if this law is legal, he continued. The Supreme Court struck down a similar law in B.C., but that one tried to change wages in the middle of a contract, not during contract talks.

Alberta’s new law is unlikely to make the next round of talks with the AUPE easier, Muir said, and it could encourage the government to legislate more settlements.

“That sort of constant legislation will really hurt the government,” he said.

Bill 45, meanwhile, is unlikely to deter illegal strikes, which are rare anyway (there have been three in the last 15 years), as it simply angered unions.

“In some ways, it’s a way of goading them,” Muir said.

Bill 45 poisons the province’s relationship with unions, an effect that will last for years, Smith said.

“This is a government that’s out of control and acting like a bully,” he said.

Both bills must receive royal assent before they become law.


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