On June 28, Bill 9, The Public Sector Wage Deferral Act received royal assent and came into effect in Alberta. The bill affects approximately 180,000 public sector workers and 24 collective agreements across the province, and delays wage arbitration negotiations for public sector unions until after October 31, 2019.
The impact of Bill 9 on public sector workers
In 2018, wage re-opener clauses were negotiated into several collective agreements, which allow for workers to negotiate monetary issues with the employer before collective agreements expire. Wage re-openers are negotiations that focus solely on wages and are not considered opening collective agreements. In exchange, workers agreed to a two-year wage freeze with wage negotiations taking place in the third year of bargained collective agreements.
The terms of unions agreeing to this re-opener were that the parties would open wage negotiations in 2019 and, in the event they were unable to come to an agreement, would move the matter to binding arbitration. Effectively, Bill 9 has delayed wage increases and allows the government to avoid using an arbitrator to decide on public sector wage increases.
The unions that have been affected by Bill 9 and have taken legal action include the United Nurses Association (UNA), Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE) the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) and the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA). AUPE has filed an injunction, ATA has launched a constitutional challenge, and HSAA and UNA have both challenged the bill with statements of claim.
On July 30, Justice Eric Macklin granted AUPE’s injunction. The following day, the Alberta government filed for an appeal of the decision, with arbitration hearings for AUPE resuming as scheduled from August 7-9. Macklin stated in the ruling, “AUPE compromised its position and its rights in order to reach the agreement. The term now being amended by the legislation is substantive, therefore Bill 9 is a substantial interference with associational [union] activity”.
Alberta’s political climate
Bill 9 is a threat to unions as it opens up collective agreements. Many unions believe that the Bill was implemented specifically to stop the use of arbitration and impose wage cuts in November. The United Conservative Party (UCP) government has used the Blue Ribbon Panel on Alberta’s Finances, whose report will be released in September, to strengthen its hand before negotiating wage increases.
Kenney stated during his campaign that he has been inspired by Ralph Klein’s government of the 1990’s, and ran on a platform that would roll back overtime and holiday pay, and make it harder for workers to unionize. Klein made disastrous cuts to the public sector which saw wage rollbacks and layoffs, and workers under Kenney fear that the government will continue to take actions that violate collective agreements and the right to collective bargaining.
Although AUPE wage talks resumed after the ruling, on Thursday, August 22, the government applied to get a stay of the arbitration hearings that concluded last week until the UCP can apply to have the injunction overturned.
The drawback in using legal mechanisms to challenge Bill 9 is that court appeals take time. The courts decided last week to speed up the process by holding the appeal on the injunction this coming Thursday, August 29. The courts will be hearing the governments application to have AUPE’s injunction on Bill 9 overturned. Although the arbitration hearings for AUPE have already concluded, if the courts decide to overturn the injunction, the ruling of the arbitrator will no longer be binding.
What comes next?
The consequences of Bill 9 are that it sets the illegal precedent for the UCP to open up collective agreements and make cuts to public services and force wage restraint on public sector workers. This is why trade unionists cannot solely rely on the legal system to solve our problems. If wage freezes and cuts are coming, union members must be ready to take direct action as the attacks on workers intensify.
AUPE has been the most immediately affected by the consequences of Bill 9, and have been at the forefront of responding to these attacks. AUPE’s response has been to not solely rely on the legal battle to repeal the bill; the union has been organizing information pickets and rallies to raise public awareness about the consequences of government interference in negotiated collective agreements, as well as how a wage delay, freeze or other austerity measures will negatively affect public sector workers.
“What’s at stake is whether the state has the authority, power, the ability to undermine negotiated collective agreements,” said AUPE President Guy Smith. If that’s the way this government is going to operate, to use legalistic methods to take away rights, that should be a concern for union workers, and for Albertans in general.”
Alberta’s unions are fighting back against Bill 9 in a variety of ways. In addition to the court challenges, you can get involved by attending an upcoming AUPE information picket, talking to fellow workers about the consequences of Bill 9 on public services and public workers, and emailing your MLA and the Minister of Labour to hold the government accountable for their anti-worker actions.