Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Alberta may be forced to respect Collective Bargaining

The Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE) has received a promising decision from a judge with the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench.

At issue is the Public Service Salary Restraint Act (PSSRA). Formerly known as Bill 46, the Act was pushed through the legislature last month and did not receive sufficient scrutiny or debate before it was passed.

While it’s true that government workers in Alberta are not strangers to having their rights curtailed, with the right to strike being limited since 1977, the PSSRA takes the added step of forgoing good faith bargaining and supplanting it with abusive Government powers. Specifically, failing a negotiated settlement between the union and the government, the Act steps in to impose a four-year contract on the workers. It freezes wages in the first two years and only provides for 1% wage hikes in the final two years.

The Act is a prime example of unfair bargaining, with the provincial government legislating its way around inconvenient labour rights. Since its collective agreement ended in March, the AUPE has been seeking a two-year deal with the province that would see its members receive a 3% pay increase per year. The government has rejected the AUPE’s position. Rather than continue to negotiate in good faith to find a compromise acceptable to both parties, the Government enacted the PSSRA. The Act imposes a deadline of January 31 for the parties to reach an agreement[1]. If no agreement is reach by then, the Act goes into force and forces its wage freeze and onerous provisions on the workers.

The union tried to reach an agreement via mediation. However, when mediation failed and the AUPE sought unsuccessfully to bring the matter to compulsory arbitration the ugliness of the Act was on display. Compulsory arbitration has been a useful process that has been allowed by the existing Alberta legislation for decades. When the PSSRA comes into effect, however, it will remove the option of board arbitration. The clear goal is to remove the ability of the union to negotiate and instead force government-centric contracts on workers whether they like it or not[2].

With the January 31 deadline looming, the union has received some space to breathe. The matter went to court, with the union challenging the merits and validity of Bill 46. Although the court has not made a determination of the issues yet, a temporary stay was granted. The stay lasts until February 14 and will give the court time to make a deliberation and render a written decision.

This stay doesn’t give the AUPE the right to proceed to arbitration at this time, but it does put the legislation on hold until at least February 14. While not a victory for the workers, it’s certainly not a defeat.

Guy Smith, President of the AUPE, notes that the union remains hopeful and will maintain its clarity of purpose during this time, characterizing the impact of the decision this way: "Today’s decision doesn’t mean we’ve won the day. But we have resolved to make every effort to stop this legislation and restore our members’ rights." [3]

The stay is an implicit acknowledgement of the court that this matter is legally complex and worthy of careful consideration. While the government has made it abundantly clear that it will not respect workers’ rights, there is still cause to believe the court will. When the legislature has failed workers so egregiously, the courts should step in to reaffirm a democratic commitment to respect for workers’ rights. Abandoned by the government, common sense and decency must be offered the protective bulwark of the courts.

















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