Bill to delay wage arbitration for Alberta nurses, teachers, government workers coming Thursday

Alberta’s new United Conservative government plans to introduce a bill Thursday to delay public sector wage arbitration talks in the contracts of thousands of teachers, nurses and government workers. 

“We believe this is the responsible thing to do at this point in time as it gives us time to consider our path forward,” Finance Minister Travis Toews said in the legislature. 

The government wants to hold off until a panel on Alberta finances chaired by former Saskatchewan Finance Minister Janice MacKinnon reports in mid-August. 

The NDP Official Opposition said the government will use Bill 9, the Public Sector Wage Arbitration Deferral Act, to break the law by breaching collective agreements.

“It is not a simple delay in arbitration. It is the breach of a legal contract with the nurses and other public sector workers,” a furious NDP Leader Rachel Notley told Toews. She accused the government of hiding their intentions during the recent election campaign. 

“Why did you not tell Albertans you were going to break the law to steal money from nurses?”

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Notley told reporters afterward that courts have ruled that the Charter rights of workers are breached when governments interfere with collective bargaining. She suspects the affected unions may take the government to court after the bill is introduced. 

Word of the bill comes one day after the NDP revealed a letter the government sent to the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA)  and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). The email from the deputy minister of Treasury Board and Finance suggested the government was contemplating legislation. 

Several major public sector unions, including the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), have provisions for a reopening wage arbitration talks in the final year of three-year contracts.

The UNA’s collective agreement, which expires at the end of March 2020, has a provision to reopen wage talks and hold an arbitration hearing by the end of June if the employer and union could not come to a settlement.

In May, the government intervened prior to an arbitration hearing, asking for a delay. The arbitrator agreed and the Alberta Labour Relations Board declined to get involved, suggesting the UNA take its complaint to court.

The AUPE also agreed to a contract with two years of wage freezes with a reopening of wage talks in the third year. That process started in January for 13 union locals, including sheriffs, correctional officers, conservation officers, food inspectors, trades workers and general support workers who work for Alberta Health Services.

In that case, the government’s attempt to delay was rejected by the independent arbitrator.

Wage arbitration meetings are scheduled to resume June 11 and a hearing must be held by the end of the month.

The situation with the ATA is different. Teachers concluded a two-year agreement prior to the election with a provision to have wages determined by an arbitrator. The deadline for a hearing is the end of September.