'Our members are ready for it': Alberta unions vow to fight legislated wages

Alberta’s public sector unions say they’ll fight any move by the United Conservative government to legislate their wages or enact back-to-work legislation in the case of a strike. 

MacKinnon panel says public sector wages make up 55 per cent of operating budget

AUPE president Guy Smith said he believes Shandro made the announcement without fully understanding how to get this wage increase to workers. (Sam Martin/CBC )

Alberta's public sector unions say they'll fight any move by the provincial government to legislate their wages or enact back-to-work legislation in the case of a strike. 

"We'll fight it at every legal means that we have and we'll win," Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling said Tuesday, following the release of the report from the blue ribbon panel on the province's finances. 

The report, chaired by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, painted Alberta's fiscal situation as dire, requiring a radical reboot of how the government delivers programs and services, all in the name of bringing the budget back to balance. 

In addition to privatizing some health-care services and cutting an undisclosed number of post-secondary institutions, the panel recommended measures to curb public sector compensation, which makes up $26.9 billion or 55 per cent of the government's operating budget. 

The majority of Alberta public sector employees are unionized and reach salary settlements through collective bargaining. 

The report recommends the government use the law to set salaries for nurses, physicians, teachers and other public sector workers through a temporary measure it calls a legislated mandate, "a tool to be used in exceptional circumstances." The panel argues that time is now. 

It also recommends using back-to-work legislation in the case of strike, and points to how Saskatchewan invoked the notwithstanding clause in 1986 to push through legislation to force people back to work. 

Schilling said ATA members have had zero salary increases in six of the last seven years and have done their part. 

"The government has asked teachers to play a role; teachers have done that," he said. "Inflation has grown while teachers' salaries have not."

The most recent collective agreement leaves the salary question for an arbitrator to decide. Schilling said teachers want those talks to proceed. 

'It's going to be a fight'

Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, said his members were angry when the government tried delaying wage arbitration until the end of October through the Public Sector Wage Arbitration Deferral Act or Bill 9, as it is commonly called.

Alberta Teachers Association president Jason Schilling. One reason why teachers are angry is the fact that they were doing just fine managing their own pension fund and were consistently beating performance benchmarks. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

He said members will be angrier if the government acts on the recommendations in the MacKinnon report. 

"It's going to be a fight," Smith told CBC News. "Our members are ready for it."

Smith and his counterpart at the United Nurses of Alberta, Heather Smith, say they will consult with their members in the next few months about what action they want to take. 

Heather Smith called on the current government to reject the recommendations in the MacKinnon panel, including interfering with collective bargaining rights, which has already landed the government in court over Bill 9. 

"The panel wants the government to continue to travel a road that is very disrespectful and illegal for workers," she said. 

Smith, who led the UNA through the cuts of the 1990s and under former premier Ralph Klein, said the actions of today's UCP government is giving her a sense of deja vu. 

Klein tried to bring in private health care and insurance through a plan called The Third Way in 2006. The idea was abandoned later that year.

"There are roads we've travelled that did not end in the destination desired, and hopefully we're not being asked to have an upheaval in our health system ... repeating the same mistakes and hoping for a different outcome," Smith said. 

Guy Smith of the AUPE also called on the government to reject the panel's recommendations but he doubts it will listen. 

"This panel was set up to come to the conclusions that this ideologically-driven government wanted to reach so we're anticipating a full-frontal attack on the women and men on the front lines, and they will respond in kind," he said. 

The Alberta Court of Appeal is expected to issue a decision this week on AUPE's ongoing battle with the government over Bill 9.

AUPE was granted an injunction against the bill, which delays wage arbitration talks until the end of October, on June 30. 

The government appealed the ruling to the province's top court. Arguments were heard last Thursday.