Edmonton

Bargaining rights bill passes after all-night session in Alberta legislature

Alberta's finance minister won't promise that 180,000 public sector workers will still get their legally mandated wage arbitration hearings if they don't happen as planned this fall.

Opposition MLA says premier gave earplugs to government members during debate

Bill 9 which delays wage arbitration for teachers, nurses and other public sector workers until the end of October was passed after an all night debate at the legislature.  (David Bajer/CBC)

Legislation that will strip away some bargaining rights for 180,000 Alberta public-sector workers passed Thursday after an all-night session in the legislature.

Bill 9, the Public Sector Arbitration Deferral Act, was passed around 7 a.m. after the government forced closure on third reading of the bill a few hours earlier.

The legislation will delay wage arbitration for teachers, nurses and other public sector workers until the end of October. 

During the overnight debate, Premier Jason Kenney handed out bright orange earplugs to members of his United Conservative caucus.

"He was handing them out to quite a few members," Thomas Dang, the NDP MLA for Edmonton-South West said in an interview Thursday. 

"He walked up and down the aisles, laughing and handing them out to his MLAs and saying, 'This is so you don't have to listen to the comments from the NDP.'"

Dang said the move was an insult to the thousands of workers affected by the legislation.

"This is a bill that rips up contracts and attacks our public service here in Alberta and their right to arbitration," Dang said. 

"They moved a motion that actually cut off the amount of debate that they were allowed to do ... and they passed the bill in the middle of the night.

"I think that actually makes it more offensive to Albertans. First they limited the amount of debate we could have and then they decided toward the end of it that they didn't even want to hear what we had to say."

The legislation will cancel contract provisions that mandate binding arbitration for 180,000 public sector workers.

Under current collective bargaining agreements, those arbitration hearings must occur on or before the bill's new deadline of Oct. 31.

The bill will also impose the delay on unionized workers who took pay freezes in the first years of their contracts but now have the right in the final year to have the wage portion reopened and subject to binding arbitration if necessary.

The workers affected include nurses, social workers, hospital support staff, correctional officers, conservation officers, toxicologists, restaurant inspectors, therapists and sheriffs.

Unionized workers took pay freezes in the first years of their contracts but with the right to a wage reopener in the final year with binding arbitration if needed. The bill seeks to delay wage talks that have already begun in some cases.

The NDP and the Alberta Federation of Labour say the bill also contains a clause that could be interpreted as giving the government the power to draw up regulations behind closed doors to unilaterally impose new contracts on unionized workers. The government denies this.

Kenney's government notified the house that it intended to limit debate at all three stages of the bill, something the Opposition NDP said hasn't happened in almost 30 years.

"They are running roughshod over the democratic process on something that is very, very impactful to hundreds of thousands of Alberta workers," said NDP labour critic Christina Gray.

Finance minister Travis Toews won't promise that the affected workers will still get their legally mandated wage arbitration hearings if they don't happen as planned this fall.

Toews declined to make the commitment when asked by reporters Wednesday. But he reiterated that the plan right now is to have those arbitration hearings take place this fall after Oct. 31.

"The intent is simply to delay arbitration for a few months so that we can ensure that we're taking a responsible tack forward (with Alberta's finances)," Toews said.

Gil McGowan, head of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said Bill 9 is not about delaying the arbitration process but eliminating it altogether.

"If they pass this bill there will be no arbitration," McGowan said Wednesday.

Toews and Kenney have said the delay is necessary because they need time, before they sit down to negotiate with unions, to hear from a government-appointed panel examining Alberta's finances.

That panel, headed by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, is to report by Aug. 15 on ways the province can save money.

The unions and the NDP have said the panel's report is a foregone conclusion as MacKinnon, in a co-authored research paper, has previously argued that Alberta should look at cutting public sector wages.

Last week, union members staged an impromptu protest rally in the legislature when the bill was introduced.

The unions have promised to challenge the legislation in court but also wouldn't rule out other protests such as job action.