Alberta premier Jason Kenney shackles hands with Travis Toews, President of Treasury Board and Minister of Finance after being sworn into office,in Edmonton on Tuesday April 30, 2019. Alberta’s finance minister, who has tabled a bill to delay until the fall wage arbitration for public sector workers, declined Wednesday to guarantee that if this doesn’t happen the workers will still ultimately get their hearing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Alberta finance minister won’t guarantee delayed union arbitration will occur

EDMONTON — Alberta’s finance minister won’t promise that 180,000 public sector workers will still get their legally mandated wage arbitration hearings if they don’t happen as planned this fall.

Travis Toews declined to make the commitment when asked by reporters Wednesday.

But he reiterated that the plan right now is to have those arbitration hearings take place this fall after Oct. 31.

“The intent is simply to delay arbitration for a few months so that we can ensure that we’re taking a responsible tack forward (with Alberta’s finances),” said Toews.

The delay is contained in a bill brought in by Toews last week.

If passed, Bill 9 would cancel contract provisions that mandate binding arbitration for 180,000 public sector workers. Under current collective bargaining agreements, those arbitration hearings must occur on or before the bill’s new deadline of Oct. 31.

The bill would impose the delay on unionized workers who took pay freezes in the first years of their contracts but now have the right in the final year to have the wage portion reopened and subject to binding arbitration if necessary.

The workers affected include nurses, social workers, hospital support staff, prison guards, conservation officers, toxicologists, restaurant inspectors, therapists and sheriffs.

Premier Jason Kenney’s government has notified the house that it intends to limit debate at all three stages of the bill, something the Opposition NDP said hasn’t happened in almost 30 years.

“They are running roughshod over the democratic process on something that is very, very impactful to hundreds of thousands of Alberta workers,” said NDP labour critic Christina Gray.

Gil McGowan, head of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said Bill 9 is not about delaying the arbitration process but eliminating it altogether.

“If they pass this bill there will be no arbitration,” said McGowan.

Toews and Premier Jason Kenney have said the delay is necessary because they need time, before they sit down to negotiate with unions, to hear from a government-appointed panel examining Alberta’s finances.

That panel, headed by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, is to report by Aug. 15 on ways the province can save money.

The unions and the NDP have said the panel’s report is a foregone conclusion as MacKinnon, in a co-authored research paper, has previously argued that Alberta should look at cutting public sector wages.

The NDP and the federation also say Bill 9 contains a clause that can be interpreted as giving the government the power to draw up regulations behind closed doors to unilaterally impose new contracts on unionized workers. The government denies this.

Last week, union members staged an impromptu protest rally in the legislature when the bill was introduced.

The unions have promised to challenge the legislation in court but also wouldn’t rule out other protests such as job action.

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