EDMONTON — The head of the Alberta Federation of Labour says the province has poisoned labour relations with the passage of two controversial bills.
Gil McGowan says his labour group urged its members to vote for Premier Alison Redford in the 2012 election, but won’t do it again.
“The coalition that elected Alison Redford less than two years ago is dead,” McGowan told a news conference Thursday.
“In the waning days of the last election campaign, thousands of public sector workers swung their support behind Alison Redford in an effort to keep the Wildrose party from power.
“Many of the unions affiliated with our federation were among those who took the bait when Redford reassured us that she was a Progressive Conservative with an emphasis on progressive. But we will not be fooled again.”
The Alberta Federation of Labour is an umbrella organization that speaks for 145,000 unionized workers across Alberta.
McGowan’s comments came a day after Redford’s government used its majority and its right to invoke a limit on debate to pass two bills less than a week after they were introduced without warning in the legislature.
Bill 46 strips away the right of binding arbitration for Alberta’s largest public-sector union, the 22,000-member Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. The bill also imposes a four-year contract with frozen wages in the first two years, followed by one per cent hikes in each of the following two.
The bill returns the right of arbitration after this contract is settled and stipulates the imposed deal only kicks in if both sides can’t reach an agreement by Jan. 31.
Redford has urged AUPE president Guy Smith to come back to the bargaining table. She said the process went off the rails after the union filed for arbitration and Smith walked away from negotiations.
Smith had warned the AUPE would not negotiate if the bill passed.
Provincial law prevents the AUPE from striking, so former Tory premier Peter Lougheed gave the union the right to binding arbitration in 1977.
Redford suggested to reporters this week she does not feel bound by that commitment. She said despite Alberta’s roaring economy, funding infrastructure and services is straining the bottom line, making it imperative the government hold the line on salaries.
The second of the controversial laws, Bill 45, introduces steep six-figure fines on unions that engage in illegal strikes or even speak publicly about such a walkout.
The government said this is in response to a wildcat walkout of prison guards and other security staff in April, which forced the province to scramble to keep prisons safe and courthouses operating.
McGowan said both bills violate Charter freedoms of speech and association and will be challenged in court.
The Alberta Federation of Labour launched a TV-ad campaign Thursday denouncing the Tories’ actions and labelling them the dictionary definition of “bully.”
Elisabeth Ballermann of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta said she expects her union will lose its right to arbitration when negotiations begin on a new contract with the province next year. The HSAA has 25,000 members. About 22,000 of them are employed by the province, working as paramedics and other medical support staff.
“We’re now left with the question of, ’What is the point of actually trying to negotiate?”’ said Ballermann. “Why would we expect anything different?”
Ballermann said the bill on illegal strikes is so broad and so vague, it runs counter to other legislated rights, such as the right of paramedics to refuse to work in unsafe situations.
She said if two or more paramedics refuse work for those reasons, the union could face crippling fines overnight.
“This is incredibly demoralizing.”
But government house leader Dave Hancock said there is no plan to introduce legislation around bargaining for other unions.
He said there will be safeguards in place in the legislation to ensure that only deliberate provocations or illegal strike actions are punished rather than random musings or threats.
And he said he can’t be concerned about the labour federation’s threat to work against the Progressive Conservative party in the 2016 election.
“We don’t govern for elections. We govern for Albertans to try do the right things for the right reasons,” said Hancock.
He said he expects the bill governing the AUPE wage deal to be proclaimed as law before Christmas. The bill dealing with illegal strikes will not proclaimed until mid-2014 at the earliest, he said, as regulations underlying the principles of the bill must still be written.