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Effort by Alberta nurses to reopen wage talks dismissed by labour relations board

An application by the United Nurses of Alberta to quash an arbitrator’s decision to delay reopening wage discussions with Alberta Health Services has been dismissed.

'To suggest public sector employees should have ... a special tax put on them we don't think is reasonable'

Nurses, like other unionized public servants, agreed to zero per cent wage increases over two years. (CBC)

An application by the United Nurses of Alberta to quash an arbitrator's decision to delay reopening wage discussions with Alberta Health Services has been dismissed.

Alberta Labour Relations Board chair William Johnson ruled Wednesday he "lacks jurisdiction" to hear the application and directed the UNA to appeal to the courts.

The provision to reopen wage arbitration on a specified date is spelled out in the UNA's collective agreement which expires March 31, 2020.

The nurses are in their second year without a wage increase. 

UNA director of labour relations David Harrigan told CBC News he is unhappy with the ALRB decision and appealing to the courts will only prolong an issue that should have never come up in the first place.

Harrigan said the government is ignoring a binding contract between the UNA and AHS.

"The government has indicated that they're the ones that want the delay and they want the results of this blue-ribbon panel," Harrigan said. "But we already know what the blue-ribbon panel results are going to be."

The government set up a blue-ribbon panel, chaired by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, to find a path toward a balanced budget without raising taxes.

MacKinnon is on record as supporting wage rollbacks as a way to bring fiscal spending in line.

"Our concern is that it's just a facade and a sham," added Harrigan, who said he thinks talks will never reopen, leaving nurses to shoulder a big loss.

"To suggest public sector employees should have effectively a special tax put on them we don't think is reasonable."

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which also accepted a two-year wage freeze, is in the third year of its collective agreement.

In contrast to the UNA's experience, independent arbitrator Phyllis Smith turned down a similar request by the Government of Alberta to delay wage-adjustment arbitration with AUPE.

In a news release, AUPE said Smith rejected the government's request following presentations from both sides.

"We are pleased the arbitrator has decided to honour our collective agreements," AUPE president Guy Smith said in the release.

"AUPE members and all working Albertans expect the rules established in their collective agreements to be taken seriously," he said.

Finance Minister Travis Toews said all options to balance the budget are being considered as he awaits delivery from the MacKinnon panel.

"We're still understanding our fiscal realities," Toews said last week. "We obviously have the MacKinnon panel that's doing some work and we're looking forward to their conclusions," he added.

"So we've made no decisions on wage rollbacks, that's for sure."

Wage arbitration for tens of thousands of AUPE members employed in general services and  Alberta Health Services with begin June 11.

The MacKinnon panel is expected to report by the middle of August.

The government plans to deliver its first budget in November.

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