Alberta's public unions prep for a fight, whether in the streets or the courts

The prospect of labour strife in Alberta is a near certainty, with unions pushing back against promises of wage rollbacks, staff reductions, budget cuts and pension moves, but what could that fight look like?

With promises of wage rollbacks, budget cuts and pension moves, unions say they're collaborating

A man with a beard holds a microphone. He's standing in front of a white flag that says AUPE.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, speaks to a crowd gathered for an information picket outside the South Health Campus in Calgary on Nov. 5. (Julie Prejet/CBC)

The United Conservative government is only six months old, but already it has vowed to cut the public workforce, pushed for wage rollbacks, unilaterally changed pension plans and passed legislation that interferes with collective bargaining in the province.

Needless to say, public sector unions that together represent more than 150,000 members — from nurses to teachers to university support staff  — are mad. They're also ready for a fight if need be. 

The fight is heavily dependent on the outcome of contract negotiations and legislative moves by the province. It could play out on the streets, but also in the courts. It could involve small pickets and walkouts  — or province-wide strikes that could seriously impact public services.

Even beyond the fights over working conditions, however, is the sense within the labour movement that recent government actions threaten the overall economic health of the province and could push a teetering economy back into recession.

"We'll fight them in the courts. We'll fight them in the media. We'll fight them in the Legislature, where last night, for the first time in a long time, I sat shoulder to shoulder with other front-line workers who are just as pissed off as we are," Mike Parker, who heads the union representing ambulance workers, wrote on Facebook on Oct. 31.

Travis Toews, Alberta's finance minister, speaks in Calgary, Alta., in September 2019. Alberta's nurses have filed a complaint of bad-faith bargaining with the provincial Labour Relations Board. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

In other words, things are about to get interesting in a province not widely known for labour activism. 

How did we get here?

If there is to be a labour war, history will show the first shot came early in the government's mandate after Jason Kenney's UCP ousted the NDP in April.

Bill 9 imposed a four-month delay on planned arbitration with some public unions so the government could pass its budget beforehand. The legislation was challenged in court and was initially struck down before being reinstated on appeal.

The second and third shots came more recently.

On Oct. 24, the UCP government released its budget, which called for a reduction in wages for public employees and cuts to the workforce — which it said would be mostly through attrition. It also unilaterally declared that the teachers' independent pension fund would be eliminated and managed by the Alberta Investment Management Corporation instead.

Shortly after, the government introduced the controversial Bill 21, which proposes to:

  • Change the rules to allow replacement workers in the case of a strike.
  • Change unilaterally the government's contract with doctors.
  • Give the health minister the power to dictate where new doctors practise.
  • Give the government more oversight over collective bargaining. 

Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews said the government wants to see wages reduced from two to five per cent depending on the jobs, a step back from the government's previous proposal of a wage freeze.

Shortly after Toews' statement, Alberta Health Services also asked for wage cuts, despite being an arm's length agency. 

The government says the moves are needed in order to rein in spending in the province in order to reduce deficits and eventually balance the books.

Public employees staged an information picket in front of Calgary's South Health Campus on Tuesday to push back against budget cuts. (Julie Prejet/CBC)

The unions disagree and point to the fact that all wages in Alberta are higher than the national average, not just in the public sector.

A spokesperson for Toews declined an interview, but said the "minister continues to express the utmost respect and admiration for Alberta's public sector workers," and hopes upcoming negotiations are "constructive and in the best interests of Albertans."  

Those words ring hollow for Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.

"I think the Kenney government, and Jason Kenney in particular, like to build up 

foes — something to push back against, something to fight," said Smith.

"I think, in fact, he's actually provoking this. I think he's trying to build this situation where a conflict is unavoidable."

But that conflict hasn't caught his union off guard. 

'Moving backward' from zero

The AUPE, the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA) and the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) say they're ready for what they see as an attack on the public sector and the impacts they say it will have on not just public employees, but the economic health of the province.

They also all hope that the issues facing the sector can be dealt with before conflict boils over.

Heather Smith, the president of the nurses union, says they've already filed a complaint with the Alberta Relations Board over the government's proposed wage rollback.

"In labour relations, an employer moving backwards is something called a 'receding horizon' in bargaining, and clearly the employer is moving backwards from a position of zero and without justification," she said.

"There's nothing new really in terms of the fiscal position of the province or the ability of AHS to pay. In fact, AHS has a surplus."

That challenge is proceeding as nurses prepare for arbitration with AHS near the end of November and in advance of a new round of collective bargaining that will start in March of next year.

The AUPE is also preparing for arbitrations in December that will affect about 60,000 members and will also enter multiple negotiations over collective agreements next year.

AUPE president Guy Smith says the premier is creating a situation where conflict is unavoidable. (Sam Martin/CBC )

Teachers are in a similar position when it comes to pay and negotiations.

Jason Schilling, the president of the ATA, says the UCP promised there would be no public sector cuts during the campaign and then proposed wage rollbacks.

"As teachers, we have taken six zeros in the last seven years," he said about a lack of wage increases. "Even when oil was at $100-plus a barrel, teachers were taking a zero to help the government with their finances."

On Tuesday, the Calgary Board of Education revealed that the recent provincial budget left a $32 million gap in its own budget.

That comes part way through the school year and could result in job losses, according to the public board.

The other move that caught the ATA off guard was the unilateral decision of the government to change how the teachers' pension is managed, removing teacher input into investments.

"We found out about it Thursday when the budget came down," said Schilling.

"There was no consultation with us prior to and we are co-owners of this plan. We share the plan, it is written that way in legislation. So to make this move without talking to co-sponsors of the plan is really quite extraordinary."

He said they'll have to wait to see the legislation around the pension shift before considering legal action.

Retirement funds for the Workers' Compensation Board and AHS will also be moved under the management of the same crown corporation.

While the unions hope for successful negotiations with the government or AHS and good results from binding arbitration, they are looking at what options are available to them should things turn sour.

It turns out the path of resistance is not so straightforward. 

In the streets

When people think of labour unrest, they think strikes and picket lines, but getting there is a bit more convoluted than many realize.

For one, contracts have to expire and negotiations must stall. There also has to be an essential services agreement in place so that a baseline of services is maintained. And, with the recent changes in Bill 21 that allow for replacement workers, the impact of a strike could be diminished.

The AUPE's Smith says they didn't even have the right to strike until recently after court rulings forced the government's hand and that they're still negotiating essential service agreements.

Now that they do have the right, however, the union is preparing for the possibility in advance because it would be such a massive undertaking for a union with members spread across the province.

The nurses also say they're preparing for the worst and ensuring members can mobilize quickly. Schilling said any potential job actions through the teachers union would have to be determined by members and he wouldn't speculate. 

The union representing ambulance workers says it's prepared to fight back against service and wage cuts.

Smith with the AUPE says the union also passed a unanimous resolution at its recent convention that said it would support any members who took action against their employer, a potentially illegal act if done outside a strike mandate.

"I've been to 30 AUPE conventions and that's the first time I've seen that strong of a message sent out saying to our members: you know what, you're in control of your own destiny," said Smith. 

"You have the ability to stand up for your rights and for services to the people of the province. And if you do so, you have the full support of the union."

Even if it got to that point, however, the government also has the ability to order workers back on the job through legislation, putting them in the difficult position of deciding whether to say on the pickets and incur big fines. 

All the unions said they're in conversation with each other, prepared to support one another and are currently collaborating on information pickets and promoting a website that highlights their complaints.

They're also preparing for a different sort of union action, but one that might become more prevalent if the government continues to legislate labour changes.

The courts

Unions have already challenged the UCP government in court over Bill 9, which delayed their planned wage arbitrations. Then there's the nurses' complaint to the labour relations board about the government's desired wage rollbacks.

Eric Adams, a law professor and vice dean at the University of Alberta, says those legal challenges could just be the start given how willing the government seems to deal with labour issues in the legislature rather than the bargaining table. 

He says legislating wage rollbacks is possible even after arbitration if the government doesn't like the outcome, which could lead to a constitutional challenge.

Adams says the case law on that kind of challenge is still evolving. Courts have struggled with the tension between a government's right to legislate and the charter rights of unions and workers. Courts also tend to be suspicious of arguments that focus on saving money, he said.

"Governments have the power to alter the law within constitutional limits and so then really the only recourse for a union in that context is to argue that the government is interfering with collective bargaining or infringing [on] collective bargaining rights that have been achieved through negotiation and that that represents an unconstitutional interference with their freedom of association," said Adams.

Smith of the United Nurses of Alberta says she's also watching to see if the UCP introduces legislation promised in its platform that would prevent unions from using member fees for political activities without explicit opt-in from members. 

"What's particularly offensive about that is that it's very hard to suggest that a union can't use its dues for advocacy in the political or other realm when we have a government that is using legislation to rip into our collective agreements," she said.

The bigger picture

It could all result in an acrimonious time for the province, just as it tries to claw its way back from an economic downturn brought on by the oil price crash.

"Frankly, we're frustrated that this has been covered as a story strictly about negotiations when, from our perspective, the issues are much bigger," McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour said.

"This is should be a conversation about the broader economy because make no mistake  — what the UCP is proposing is a dramatic reduction in spending on those services and programs and infrastructure that provide a key foundation for the Alberta economy."

The AFL commissioned a report by two economists that argues the recent provincial budget would push Alberta back into the economic doldrums, with McGowan putting the blame squarely at the premier's feet.

"From our perspective, this budget will trigger another recession," he said. "But unlike previous recessions, this one will be self-inflicted."

The unions say they've never seen the level of coordination and communication that's taking place between them and that they're also in contact with private sector unions about shared concerns.

It's a coming together that could have a profound impact on how the province moves forward in the coming weeks and months.

But could Alberta see a general strike?

Says the AUPE's Smith: "Stay tuned."


Drew Anderson

Former CBC digital journalist

Drew Anderson was a digital journalist with CBC Calgary from 2015 to 2021 and is a third-generation Calgarian.