Pay hikes in Alberta public sector could mean further job cuts: finance minister

EDMONTON — Alberta’s finance minister says savings would have to be found elsewhere — perhaps in further job cuts — if public-sector workers were to be awarded increases in upcoming arbitrated wage negotiations.

Travis Toews says there is no money in the budget for raises.

“Total cost of public service is a function of volume (multiplied by) price,” Toews said Thursday. “If the price goes up, we may have to look at further reductions in the public service.”

Earlier this week, Toews said the government wants arbitrators to impose an average two per cent pay cut in 30 wage arbitrations involving more than 180,000 workers.

In some cases, he said, the province is asking for rollbacks as high as five per cent.

Toews said the province has great respect for what the workers do, but public-sector pay accounts for more than half of government expenses, is higher than comparable provinces and there has to be a reduction.

Last week’s budget called for more than a seven per cent reduction in public-sector jobs over four years, mainly through attrition. Toews has said the goal is to bring salaries in line with workers in similar provinces.

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

Earlier Thursday, the United Nurses of Alberta, who are to go into wage arbitration next month, filed a bad-faith bargaining complaint with the provincial labour relations board.

The nurses are employed by Alberta Health Services, an arm’s-length body tasked with carrying out day-to-day frontline care.

The agency had been asking the arbitrator to implement a wage freeze on the nurses for this year, but after Toews’s announcement changed that to a three per cent rollback.

The nurses say that’s bad-faith bargaining because the government is not directly involved in negotiations. They also say Alberta Health Services was wrong to change its position without giving reasons.

The nurses want the wage freeze put back on the table.

Toews said the government has a defensible position as well as a legitimate interest given it pays the bills.

“We’re responsible to the funders. We’re responsible to the taxpayers of the province. We take that seriously,” he said.

Christina Gray, labour critic for the Opposition NDP, described the move as part of a pattern of attacks on workers by the United Conservative government.

“What we have seen is a lack of respect for public-sector workers in this province on the part of this government,” said Gray.

“They’re willing to break legislation, to break constitutional rights of workers, to try to balance our budget on the backs of workers.”

Nurses are in the last year of a three-year contract with no salary increase in the first two years but a provision for arbitrated wage talks this year. They are asking for a three per cent raise.

The United Nurses of Alberta represents more than 30,000 registered nurses, registered psychiatric nurses and other health-care workers.

They, like other affected workers, were to have wage talks reopened earlier this year under collective agreements. The province passed a law to delay the the arbitration until Oct. 31 so it could get information from a panel reviewing Alberta’s finances.

The panel reported in August that Alberta pays much higher on average per capita for services and, in some cases, receives poorer results. It urged immediate action to reduce spending to end multibillion-dollar deficits and spiralling debt.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 31, 2019.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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