EDMONTON — The head of Alberta’s largest public-sector union says while the province has improved its latest contract offer, it’s going to have to do a lot better.
“The latest proposal from the government was marginally better … but it doesn’t even come close to meeting the needs that we’re seeking for our members,” said Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.
“It’s still a bad deal that we’re not willing to accept.”
Negotiators for both sides resumed talks this week, just two weeks before a legislated deal is to kick in.
The Public Service Salary Restraint Act has been the focus of controversy and anger since it was introduced and passed by Premier Alison Redford’s government last month.
The legislation will impose a contract on AUPE if it doesn’t agree with the province by the end of January. The four-year deal would see wage freezes in the first two years, followed by one per cent increases in the following two years. The union had originally asked for a six per cent hike over two years.
Redford has said the deal needs to be in line with austere contracts recently signed by teachers and doctors.
Smith said he wonders if the province is even committed to bargaining, given that the legislated contract is about to kick in.
“It’s a great big baseball bat,” said Smith.
“How compelled are they going to be to seriously negotiate at the table when they know at the end of the day they can just whack us with that bat? I guess in the next couple of days we’ll see how serious they are. But if we cannot reach a collective agreement, it’s because the government didn’t want to.”
The union is fighting the legislation in court and in a complaint to Alberta’s labour relations board. It argues that the act violates charter freedoms, especially given that it has taken away AUPE’s right to binding arbitration in this round of bargaining.
The right of binding arbitration was granted to the union more than 30 years ago by another Progressive Conservative premier, Peter Lougheed, as a give-back for taking away the right to strike.
Redford has suggested she doesn’t consider herself bound by decisions of her predecessors, noting she didn’t take power until the fall of 2011.
Smith said his members are following the negotiations closely and have told their representatives to stay strong.
“They’re saying to us, ’Stick to your guns.’ We will not be allowed to be bullied into taking a bad deal just because this government is acting like a bully. We’re better than that.”
Redford has said the legislation was a last resort because AUPE had walked away from the table and had filed for binding arbitration.
Smith said even though the union filed for arbitration, it has never stopped wanting to talk.
The union is also going to court to fight, on charter grounds, a companion piece of legislation passed by Redford’s government in December. The Public Services Sector Continuation Act delivers six- and seven-figure fines if AUPE stages an illegal strike or even publicly suggests it’s considering such action.
AUPE represents 22,000 front-line government workers in a variety of fields, from corrections officers to social workers.
The union has been without a contract since March 31, 2013.