CALGARY — Alberta Premier Alison Redford is standing behind a controversial law that a judge says may violate the basic bargaining rights of the province’s largest public-sector union.
“We believe the legislation that we passed is appropriate,” Redford said Tuesday.
She said her government won’t revisit the Public Service Salary Restraint Act, even though Justice Denny Thomas suspended the law last week pending a charter challenge from the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, or AUPE.
“We’re confident in the legislation. We’ll be appealing (Thomas’s) decision and taking all necessary steps to do that,” said Redford.
On Friday, Justice Thomas of Edmonton Court of Queen’s Bench put the law on hold. He said the union had made a compelling case that the law violates its charter right to freedom of association.
The law, before it was suspended, was set to impose wage freezes and one per cent salary increases on public-sector workers if there was no negotiated contract settlement by the end of January.
That deadline was later extended to the end of March.
The law also revoked the union’s legislated right to go to binding arbitration for the current round of talks. That right has been a part of the AUPE’s bargaining leverage given it is not allowed under law to go on strike.
Redford said the goal of the act was to restart negotiations with the union after talks broke off last July.
“The reason we passed the legislation was to ensure that we could get at the table and negotiate with AUPE,” said Redford.
“I know that there are more negotiations scheduled for the beginning of next week. We believe that that’s the appropriate way to move forward to get the best deal possible for public-sector workers and for taxpayers.”
Thomas ruled it was Redford’s negotiators who walked away from the table in the first place. The judge noted that contract talks began in the spring of 2013, with progress made on some non-wage issues, and by July a mediator had been brought in to break the impasse.
Thomas said the union came to the table with six remaining key points to settle, but found it was alone.
“The mediator reported that Alberta (negotiators) refused to discuss the AUPE proposals and mediation terminated on July 6, 2013,” wrote Thomas.
Just over a week later, the union filed for binding arbitration with hearings set for this February.
But, noted Thomas, before those arbitration hearings could take place, Redford’s government introduced and passed the salary restraint act.
AUPE president Guy Smith said Tuesday he’s baffled why Redford and deputy premier Dave Hancock continue to say the law was aimed at getting the union back to the bargaining table.
“I can’t tell you why they’re saying (it), but it’s completely against reality,” said Smith. “We’ve been at the table the whole time.
“And anybody who has any understanding of labour relations knows that negotiations are free to take place up to and right through the arbitration process.”
Redford’s government has also said a legislated contract is necessary to ensure the AUPE contract matches wage freezes and slim pay hikes given to doctors and teachers.
The union has 22,000 members including scientists, court clerks, social workers, prison guards, sheriffs and other support staff.
No date has been set for the government’s appeal. Smith said the union is still waiting to hear back on arbitration dates.