MEDICINE HAT, AB — The union which represents nurses across Alberta is not happy with a new bill introduced by the United Conservative Party this week.
On Thursday, Minister of Finance Travis Toews tabled the Public Sector Wage Arbitration Deferral Actm also known as Bill 9, in the Alberta legislature. If passed, Bill 9 will delay wage talks for public sector workers until after October 31, to allow the Blue Ribbon panel to complete its assessment of Alberta’s finances.
“We owe it to Albertans, and all public sector workers, to come to the table with information on the state of our economy and the impact it will have on our finances, so we can make responsible and informed decisions,” Toews said in a statement on Thursday. “We will continue to work together with our union stakeholders in good faith. Negotiating without this information would be fiscally irresponsible and we are seeking the time to make the right decisions for all Albertans.”
However, unions representing public sector employees, such as the United Nurses of Alberta, the Alberta Teachers Association and the Alberta Union of Public Employees have slammed the bill and its impact on the collective bargaining process.
“It’s the largest betrayal that I’ve seen in the history of Alberta,” said David Harrigan, director of labour relations with the United Nurses of Alberta, over the phone from Edmonton. “First of all, it’s an absolute breach of the Charter rights of nurses. The Supreme Court of Canada has very clearly said governments can’t just pass laws that, without any consultation whatsoever, change employee’s collective agreements. Employees have the right for meaningful consultation. This government went in and just unilaterally changed people’s collective agreements.”
Greg Jeffery, president of the Alberta Teachers Association, also criticized the bill.
“This is a huge interference in the collective bargaining process, and teachers are unhappy about the government making this move,” he said.
Harrigan notes the UNA reached an agreement with Alberta Health Services that included wage freezes for two years, but would be able to discuss potential wage increases in the third year.
“The parties agreed we would have a period of arbitration no later than the end of June, and this bill says ‘no, you won’t,’” he said.
Jeffery says in the past seven years, teachers have had wage freezes in six of those years.
“Teachers held out some hope on the arbitration process,” he said. “We’re now in the first year of a two year agreement, so the arbitration applies to an agreement where we’re already halfway finished it. There was some hope for teachers in that process, and to have the government to interfere in the collective bargaining process – I say it that way because the date for the arbitration was embedded in every teacher’s collective agreement...- we’re even wondering about the legality of this.”
Both Harrigan and Jeffery say in discussions following the tabling of the bill, morale has dropped among members of both unions.
“This bill certainly wouldn’t change the delivery of public education, however, it will certainly affect the morale of teachers around the province,” said Jeffery.
“If you are a public sector worker, and it’s Public Sector Employee Week, and the government acts by unilaterally amending your collective agreement, it’s going to affect morale,” said Harrigan. “It’s also going to make it difficult, I think to attract and maintain staff, so I think in the long run, it’s going to have an effect. There are still areas in Alberta, especially rural areas that are unable to attract nurses, and some of them are even using agency nurses, because they can’t staff the hospitals.”
Harrigan says he is expecting legal action from unions if the bill becomes law.
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