Debate heated in Alberta legislature over controversial labour bills

By Mariam Ibrahim and Keith Gerein, Edmonton Journal December 3, 2013

EDMONTON – Despite mounting backlash, Premier Alison Redford said Tuesday she senses public servants in Alberta appreciate her government’s push to pass two controversial labour bills.

Tensions remain high in the legislature as the government and opposition parties square off over Bills 45 and 46.

Both bills passed second reading late Monday, as the government made good on its threat to impose a two-hour time limit for debate at each stage of the legislative process.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Redford called it a “difficult situation,” but said public servants appreciate the efforts.

“You can imagine that as premier, since we’ve introduced this legislation, I’ve had the opportunity to work with an awful lot of public servants every day and my sense is that there’s an appreciation for what we’re trying to do,” Redford said.

Bill 45 would significantly increase fines for unions engaged in an illegal strike, while Bill 46, which applies to the province’s ongoing negotiations with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, eliminates a binding arbitration process and would impose a wage deal.

Asked why the arbitration process was eliminated under the bill, Redford said her government wants the union to come back to the negotiating table.

“We’re really encouraging them to come back and try to come to an agreement that we think will treat public servants fairly,” she said.

AUPE President Guy Smith said last week that the union won’t negotiate if the bills pass. The union on Tuesday The AUPE released documents showing the Redford government had committed to arbitration before introducing the bills.

Debate on the bills wrapped up after 1:30 a.m. Tuesday following some heated exchanges. Some of the most incendiary comments came from Calgary Tory MLA Neil Brown, who spoke in favour of Bill 45 and said he felt the bill does not go far enough. He suggested an illegal strike among Alberta correctional workers last April was more serious than the 2011 Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver because it involved people who had been sworn to uphold the law.

“In my view, that illegal action, when it was in defiance of a court order, moved into a different realm,” Brown told the assembly. “It made it much more serious. I believe that even more than financial sanctions, there ought to be sanctions beyond that — that is, the denial of the right to serve in public service for a period of time when you defy a court order.”

Brown’s remarks caused at least two loud disruptions from people sitting in the gallery, prompting the Speaker to threaten to throw everyone out.

Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson said he found Brown’s comments inappropriate.

“That’s just unfair, in my view, to the folks that serve our province every day and sacrifice every day in their jobs to keep us safe and healthy and in order.”

NDP Leader Brian Mason said Brown’s comments were “provocative and offensive” since the wildcat strike in April ignited, in part, over concerns about workplace safety at the new Edmonton Remand Centre.

After Bill 45 passed second reading, the government followed suit with Bill 46. It sets a deadline of Jan. 31 for negotiations with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which has been without a collective agreement since March. If no settlement is reached, the bill imposes a wage deal of no increases for two years and one-per-cent increases for each of the following two years, as well as a lump-sum payment in year two.

A similar scenario to Monday night is expected to play out for the next two days in the legislature, as the government hopes to have the bills passed before the fall sitting ends on Thursday.

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