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Alberta labour deal ends threat of open war between civil service union and Hancock Government

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Jim Prentice

The threat of open warfare between Alberta's government and its largest union over the contract for unionized civil servants ended yesterday, after the ruling Progressive Conservative dynasty, nervously awaiting the coming of latest supposed saviour, appears to have sued for peace.

Pretty obviously, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees won, although, just as clearly, AUPE didn't achieve this victory entirely on its own.

The tentative agreement -- which is certain to be approved by the 22,000 civil servants represented by AUPE -- paves the way for a relatively trouble-free coronation for banking executive and former federal Tory cabinet minister Jim Prentice, whom scores of anonymous sources and members of the Alberta Twitterati were busy insisting yesterday really is going to run for the PC leadership.

Thus, in the wee hours of yesterday morning, the AUPE and government bargaining teams agreed to a four-year deal that will see direct employees of the provincial government receive a lump-sum payment of $1,850 in the first year and pay increases of 2 per cent, 2.25 per cent and 2.5 per cent in each of the subsequent years.

There are many other improvements in the agreement, as well, which was reached through collective bargaining that only took place thanks to an injunction granted to AUPE by Mr. Justice Denny Thomas of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench. In his Valentine's Day ruling, Justice Thomas excoriated the government for bargaining in bad faith before ordering it not to use legislation passed in December to impose a contract on the union until AUPE had the opportunity to appeal the law.

Yesterday's announcement was a far cry from the deal that would have been imposed by the Public Service Salary Restraint Act, still known as Bill 46, which was intended to force AUPE to accept a four-year contract with a wage freeze in the first two years and a 1-per-cent pay increase in each of the next two years. The act also stripped AUPE of the right to binding arbitration, granted to the union by Peter Lougheed's government in 1977 in return for its loss of the right to strike.

Before Bill 46 was passed by the Legislature, Finance Minister Doug Horner defended the tough conditions as necessary for the province "to live within its means." But compare the bill's brutal terms to what AUPE will gracefully call 6.75 per cent in on-the-grid salary increases for its civil service members, but which are really more than that, because each year's raise is added to a slightly higher amount.

In addition, the union's civil service members will see swifter vacation accruals, improved shift differential pay, better special leave provisions, additional holiday days off and even an agreement by the employer to have a safe and respectful work environment.

So many AUPE members were reading the details of the deal last night that they crashed the union's website!

The key compromise by AUPE was only hinted at in the last paragraph of the union's press release: "We are prepared to rebuild the relationship with the government that's needed to ensure Albertans get the quality services they deserve," it quoted union President Guy Smith saying. "Our members will be judging the government on their actions, not their words."

In other words, AUPE -- which had been threatening to launch a major advocacy campaign against the government -- won't rain on Prentice's victory parade if the government behaves itself.

The first hint a deal was afoot came yesterday morning, when government lawyers who had been scheduled to launch an appeal of Justice Thomas's injunction cancelled the hearing at the last moment with the agreement of the union's counsel.

In reality, the most important negotiations did not take place between the two bargaining committees, but between Smith and Premier Dave Hancock, who has promised to press his cabinet to ratify the agreement.

Indeed, at a news conference yesterday afternoon, Smith credited Hancock with facilitating the entente. "It's a very encouraging sign when a sitting premier sits down, recognizes, listens, and respectfully tries to deal with the issues that we brought up," he said, adding pointedly that he had tried for a year to get a similar meeting with former premier Alison Redford and was repeatedly rebuffed.

Significantly, two of the biggest advocates of the tough approach taken by the Redford government -- Horner and Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, both also rumoured leadership candidates, at least up until Prentice's apparent anointment -- seem to have had very little to do with the union's discussions with Hancock.

Lukaszuk has claimed yesterday's deal was only reached because of Bill 46, but it seems more likely the legislation was a major stumbling block to an agreement that should have been much easier to reach.

Alberta's labour relations climate remains chilly with two other poisonous legacies from the Redford Interregnum, Horner's assault on public sector pensions and the unconstitutional Bill 45, souring relations between members of many public sector unions and the PCs.

But the threat of open hostilities between Alberta's civil service union and the government that employs its members has eased significantly this morning. The political significance of this development remains to be seen.


This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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