Public sector unimpressed with budget warning from Alberta Tories

By Bryan Weismiller And Jamie Komarnicki, Calgary Herald; With Files From Kelly Cryderman August 31, 2012 9:41 AM

As the Tory government warned it’s not ponying up extra cash for public sector negotiations, doctors, teachers and other groups say they’re still expecting a fair shake at the bargaining table.

Finance Minister Doug Horner told reporters Thursday “there will be no new money for public service sector negotiations until we see improvement,” after announcing the provincial deficit is projected this year to surge to as high as $3 billion, based on a fiscal update.

AUPE president Guy Smith said he heard similar warnings in 2010 and his membership is getting “fed up with that broken record of a message.”

“We expect them to say things like that and then we go to the table and negotiate in good faith,” Smith said, referring to the new deal needed for about 21,000 provincial employees next year.

Horner said department spending will also be capped at original budget allocations, meaning there will be no new money available for public sector contracts until the financial picture improves. He said that didn’t necessarily mean a pay freeze for public sector workers, but departments will have to live within whatever budget they received at the start of the year.

Health-care workers’ negotiations may prove particularly thorny in light of Thursday’s announcement.

The province is locked in a contract battle with the Alberta Medical Association after offering a prime deal days before the spring election was called – then, according to the physicians’ group, unilaterally changing the terms and sending the two sides back to the bargaining table in July.

The master agreement for the province’s 7,200 doctors expired March 31, 2011.

According to a statement released Thursday by AMA president Dr. Linda Slocombe, the association hasn’t been informed by government about the implications of the fiscal update on ongoing contract negotiations. She pointed out Alberta doctors haven’t had a fee increase since 2010, while staffing, equipment and other costs have gone up.

Dire words from government are a bargaining tactic that public sector groups in Alberta have had to deal with many times in the past, said Heather Smith of the United Nurses Association. The provincial nurses’ contract expires next March.

Meanwhile, teachers, school boards and the government are trying to hammer out a new framework as provincewide collective agreements expire Friday. Members of the tripartite group told the Herald they’re confident a deal can be reached by the end of October.

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