Controversial labour bills pass as Alberta unions fail to convince premier to create task force

By Mariam Ibrahim, Jodie Sinnema, Edmonton Journal December 5, 2013

EDMONTON – A letter by major unions next in line to negotiate deals with the province failed to convince Premier Alison Redford to suspend debate on a pair of controversial bills in favour of sitting down to a task force on labour relations.

The legislature passed third reading of Bill 45 late Wednesday with a 33-8 vote. Bill 45 will significantly increase fines for unions engaged in an illegal strike. Bill 46, which eliminates binding arbitration and imposes a wage deal if the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees doesn’t negotiate a contract by Jan. 31, was also passed.

The Alberta Federation of Labour slammed the passage of the bills as anti-democratic. AFL president Gil McGowan expressed disappointment at both the content of the legislation as well as the speed at which the bills were passed.

“We’ve seen that when this government decides to go after you, you can expect anti-democratic legislation to be rammed through the legislature in a matter of days without any meaningful debate,” McGowan said. “This time they’ve taken aim at government workers. Who will be in their crosshairs next?”

AUPE president Guy Smith said he was pleased all the opposition members voted against the first bill.

“It’s a sign the government is isolated on these issues,” Smith said, adding the public doesn’t like the bills, either. “Even if they don’t support unions, they support free speech.”

Other unions also oppose the move.

“We strongly feel that bills 45 and 46 are unfair, uncalled for, unnecessarily confrontational and likely unconstitutional. As the unions ‘next in line’ for negotiations in the provincial public sector, we are concerned that these bills will cast a shadow over all current and upcoming bargaining sessions,” reads the letter signed by the presidents of the Alberta Federation of Labour, the United Nurses of Alberta, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta and the Canadian Union of Public Employees-Alberta.

Together, the UNA, HSAA and CUPE-Alberta represent roughly 86,000 workers in the province. The AFL is an umbrella organization representing 145,000 unionized workers across Alberta.

The government introduced both pieces of legislation a week ago, spurring three days of union protests at the steps of the Alberta legislature.

The first, Bill 45, also introduces penalties for strike threats, a provision that has garnered widespread condemnations from critics as an attack on free speech.

Bill 46, which only applies to the province’s negotiations with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, would eliminate the union’s ability to go to binding arbitration. Instead, the bill sets a negotiation deadline of Jan. 31, 2014, when a four-year wage deal with no increases for the first two years and one-per-cent increases in the next two years would be imposed.

“We are also concerned that, if passed, these bills will lead to a generation of poisoned labour relations in Alberta’s public sector,” reads the letter. “In an effort to avoid this obviously undesirable outcome, we would like you to consider our proposal to create a task force.”

Redford earlier this week defended the legislation as necessary to hold the line on public sector salaries, but said she would like to see AUPE come back to the bargaining table. She said she senses there’s an appreciation from public servants for her government’s efforts since the bills were introduced.

Neala Barton, Redford’s press secretary, said that the premier spoke to the AUPE leadership last week and “it was made clear to her that there was not a path forward, which is why we moved forward with the legislation.

“The reality is, there is still time to negotiate.”

The AUPE this week released documents showing the province had already agreed to binding arbitration when the bills were introduced. On Wednesday, the union appealed to Progressive Conservative MLAs to vote against the legislation.

“They can vote to support the working people in their constituency and protect free speech, or they can vote for bad-faith bargaining tactics and the attack on free speech in Bills 45 and 46,” AUPE president Guy Smith said in a written statement.

Smith said last week the union wouldn’t negotiate with the province if the bills become law.

Both pieces of legislation have moved through the legislative process quickly, as a result of a government motion that limited debate at each stage to two hours.

Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason said the government’s efforts to limit the debate interferes with the responsibility for MLAs to represent their constituents.

“They are not only trampling on the rights of their own employees but they’re trampling on the rights of elected members of the assembly,” Mason said.

Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman said the bills are about ideology, not government finances.

“They’ve been trying to union bust for a long, long time,” Blakeman said.

With files from Jodie Sinnema

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Letter from Union Leaders to Premier Alison Redford re: Bills 45 & 46 by Mariam Ibrahim

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