Alberta government wants 2 to 5 per cent wage rollbacks for public sector workers

The Alberta government will ask for rollbacks ranging from two to five per cent when wage arbitration talks for tens of thousands of public sector workers reopen on Thursday.

Finance minister cites 'revised position' as wage reopening talks resume Thursday

Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews delivers the 2019 budget speech in the legislature Thursday. (Legislative Assembly of Alberta)

The Alberta government will ask for rollbacks ranging from two to five per cent when wage arbitration talks for tens of thousands of public sector workers reopen on Thursday.

Talks on three collective agreements affecting teachers, nurses and provincial government employees were put on hold until Oct. 31 after the government passed Bill 9.

The government is allowing arbitration to proceed but is changing its position from no increase in wages to an average two per cent rollback. 

"We have adjusted downward our opening position going into the arbitrations but we are respecting the arbitration process," Toews told reporters at the Alberta legislature. 

Toews said the government looked at wages in comparable Canadian provinces. Some job categories are paid more than others, so the requested rollbacks could vary from two to five per cent. 

"Our goal would be to align over time our remuneration of the public sector with that of [comparable] provinces," Toews said. "That's why we aren't taking a linear approach."

He said 30 arbitrations are coming up in the next few months, affecting the vast majority of unionized public sector workers.

Alberta Union of Provincial Employees president Guy Smith called the government's action a "direct attack" on his members and their families. He warned that members may be prepared to take action.

He said AUPE members recently unanimously passed a motion to support members who take action. 

"I guess it's disappointing, extremely disappointing that a government would turn its attacks on its own employees," Smith said. "But I guess it's not surprising when when you realize what they're made of."

Arbitration for AUPE resumes in December. Smith said the government is asking for a two per cent rollback. He said the last time AUPE members took a pay cut was in 1993. 

Smith estimates the government's action will affect about 250,000 public sector workers. He said AUPE is talking to other unions about what to do next. 

"We're having a lot of discussions about how we can support each other because we really are in the same struggle at the same time," he said. 

'Worldwide' market for RNs

The United Nurses of Alberta said the government has directed Alberta Health Services to ask for a three per cent cut. Aribtration between AHS and UNA is scheduled for Nov. 22 and 23.

"We expect to proceed on those dates, and we anticipate the employer will bargain in good faith as required by law and that the arbitrator will conduct himself in accordance with the law," UNA president Heather Smith said in a news release. 

Smith said the province already has a nursing shortage and that "the worldwide market for the services provided by registered nurses remains strong."

Alberta teachers are heading back to arbitration next month. Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, is putting his faith in the independent arbitrator who will decide the salary question.

"It's an independent arbitrator who will look at the facts of the case as presented and then make a decision, hopefully without government interference," he said. 

The ATA agreed to a two-year contract in the spring. The salary part of the contract was to be left to the arbitrator. 

Schilling says his members are angry with the government and says they feel they are being disrespected. 

"We are being told, time and time again, especially with this budget that has about $275 million cuts to funding, to do more with less over and over again," he said. 

Schilling said teachers have already taken six years with no salary increases over the last seven years to help the government's bottom line. 

As for Toews's desire to bring public salaries down to those paid in other provinces, Schilling says each region has different factors in play, such as the cost of living.