File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS Unionized workers took pay freezes in the first years of their contracts but with the right to a wage reopener in the final year with binding arbitration if needed. The bill seeks to delay wage talks that have already begun in some cases.

Alberta limits debate on bill to strip some public sector bargaining rights

EDMONTON — Alberta’s United Conservative government is limiting debate on a contentious bill that would strip away some bargaining rights for 180,000 public-sector workers.

Unionized workers took pay freezes in the first years of their contracts but with the right to a wage reopener in the final year with binding arbitration if needed. The bill seeks to delay wage talks that have already begun in some cases.

Workers affected include nurses, social workers, hospital support staff, prison guards, conservation officers, toxicologists, restaurant inspectors, therapists and the sheriffs who protect politicians and staff in the legislature.

Government house leader Jason Nixon said Tuesday that there will be no more than nine hours in total allowed for the last three stages of debate.

NDP Opposition members shouted “shame” and accused Premier Jason Kenney’s government of using the bill to secretly ram through public-sector wage cuts this fall.

“What the premier is pushing his cabinet and caucus to do is cowardly,” NDP deputy leader Sarah Hoffman told Kenney during question period.

“It is the epitome of unconstitutional law-breaking, an infringement on the rights of teachers, nurses, paramedics (and) front-line public service members.”

Kenney replied that even with the time restriction, the debate will still wind up covering between 25 and 30 hours.

“There will be ample debate,” the premier said. “That’s more than one hour for every member of the Opposition for a three-page bill on a four-month deferral.”

Kenney said he wants to put off talks and arbitration until a government-appointed panel reports by Aug. 15 on ways the province can save money and get the budget back into balance.

Janice MacKinnon, the former Saskatchewan finance minister who heads the panel, has previously argued in a co-authored research paper that Alberta should look at cutting public-sector wages to save money.

“No one’s taking anybody’s rights away,” said Kenney.

“We’re proposing a bill to defer by four months arbitration to ensure that the government has adequate information on the fiscal state of the province.”

The bill would cancel legally binding contract provisions calling for binding arbitration to occur at dates on or before a new deadline of Oct. 31.

The NDP and the Alberta Federation of Labour say the bill also contains a clause that could 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.

The situation portends acrimonious relations ahead between Kenney’s government and public-sector unions.

Last week, union members staged an impromptu rally in the legislature rotunda when the bill was introduced. Union leaders promised to take the issue to court but also wouldn’t rule out other protests such as job action.

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