On monday, members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees were joined by supporters at a lunch-hour rally outside Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre. (File photo by SUSAN ZIELINSKI/Advocate staff)

Judge grants union injunction against Alberta public sector wage bill: AUPE

EDMONTON — An Alberta judge has ruled that wage arbitration hearings for ten of thousands of public sector workers can go ahead sooner rather than later.

Justice Eric Macklin has granted a bid by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees for an injunction preventing the United Conservative government from implementing the recently passed Public Sector Wage Arbitration Deferral Act.

Bill 9 calls for delaying contract provisions for reopened wage talks and binding arbitration for public-sector workers.

Under current collective agreements, arbitration hearings were to occur between now and the end of October.

Macklin said the public expects that parties to an agreement will honour commitments made in agreements, and they reasonably expect that parties with whom they contract, regardless of who that may be, will honour the terms of the agreement made.

“It is no different if one of the contracting parties is the government. A member of the public expects, and is entitled to expect, that an agreement reached with the government will be honoured,” Macklin wrote.

“It is in the long-term public interest for the public to see that its government cannot unilaterally change its contractual obligations through legislation that may interfere with Charter rights.

“On balance, when considering the harm or potential harm to each party and the public interest, I conclude that the balance of convenience favours granting the Interim Injunction.”

Bill 9 calls for delaying contract provisions for reopened wage talks and binding arbitration for public-sector workers.

Under current collective agreements, arbitration hearings were to occur between now and the end of October.

AUPE president Guy Smith says Macklin’s ruling means the arbitration hearings affecting thousands of government and Alberta Health Services workers will now take place on Aug. 7-9.

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

“We fought for the rights of workers and we won,” Smith said Tuesday in a release.

“The judge agreed with us that the government cannot arrogantly deny our collective bargaining rights.”

Finance Minister Travis Toews said the government will appeal the ruling and seek an expedited hearing.

“Albertans elected a government that would be responsible with their hard-earned tax dollars. Bill 9 is (a) prudent measure,” Toews said in an email.

“It only provides for a temporary delay to ensure the government has all the relevant financial information before entering into wage negotiations.”

The United Nurses of Alberta, which was an intervener in the case, applauded the ruling.

“Thanks to all members of UNA and other unions who have participated in information pickets, and congratulations to AUPE for today’s victory,” David Harrigan, a union spokesman, wrote in a post on Facebook.

Opposition NDP labour critic Christina Gray also lauded the injunction.

“Today’s injunction is a promising first step to striking down a bad law that seeks to strip 200,000 Albertans of their constitutional right to bargain collectively in good faith,” she said in a release.

“A deal is a deal, and this premier’s willingness to tear up a contract should be a grave concern to all Albertans.”

The legislation imposed the delay on unionized workers who took pay freezes in the first years of their contracts but with the right in the final year to negotiate wages.

The two sides stated their positions before Macklin in Court of Queen’s Bench on Monday.

AUPE lawyer Patrick Nugent argued that the legislation is simply an unjustifiable override on a legally binding contract and an attack on constitutionally guaranteed bargaining rights.

Government lawyers argued that the delay is necessary as Premier Jason Kenney’s new government compiles information on provincial finances to better inform its bargaining position.

A government-appointed panel headed by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon is to deliver its assessment in two weeks on ways the province can save money to get the budget back into balance.

While the province has said it needs more financial information, it has already stated its position of zero per cent wage increases in negotiations with AUPE workers and nurses that have now been suspended due to the passage of the bill.

Union leaders have said the bill is simply a stalling tactic as the province prepares to legislate wage cuts to public sector workers.

The bill was not promised by Kenney during the United Conservative’s successful spring election campaign.

When it was introduced June 13, hundreds of workers rallied in the legislature rotunda, shouting “Shame!”

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