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Union leaders accuse Alberta government of bargaining in the media

Leaders of some of Alberta's biggest unions are accusing the provincial government of trying to "provoke anger" amongst their members and employing "disappointing" tactics by taking negotiating numbers to the media.

'It’s to try to make us out to be the cause of all of the problems in this province'

AUPE president Guy Smith said the UCP government is negotiating in the media, what he called a "disappointing" move. (Sam Martin/CBC )

Leaders of some of Alberta's biggest unions are accusing the provincial government of trying to "provoke anger" amongst their members and employing "disappointing" tactics by taking negotiating numbers to the media.

On Tuesday, Finance Minister Travis Toews announced the government would seek an average two per cent rollback of wages in the public sector.

Later that night, Premier Jason Kenney stated in a Facebook presentation that unions seeking a six to seven per cent pay increase in upcoming arbitration sessions are "out of touch with reality."

The decision to bring negotiating details into the public realm was swiftly condemned by union leaders. 

"It's to try to make us out to be the cause of all of the problems in this province as frontline health-care workers by using the media," said Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta on Wednesday.

The HSAA is not seeking a seven per cent increase in upcoming wage arbitration for 20,000 of its members, Parker said. The union represents paramedics, respiratory therapists, and other health-care professionals. 

"We choose not to use media as a bargaining tool. We choose to have our discussions at the table. It is setting the stage for an unusual way forward."

In an internal message from senior executive Todd Gilchrist obtained by CBC News, Alberta Health Services (which employs HSAA members) has communicated it will seek a five per cent wage rollback from the union's members.

Gilchrist's message says AHS will also be seeking between two and three per cent rollbacks from other workers such as registered nurses and general support services. 

The upcoming arbitration session is to finalize the third year of a contract that saw HSAA members receive zero per cent increases in the first two years. The union will have to go back to the bargaining table next spring when this three-year contract expires.

"We choose not to use media as a bargaining tool...(This) is setting the stage for an unusual way forward."​​​​​- Mike Parker, HSAA President

It's the same position for thousands of other public sector workers, such as those represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, 60,000 of whom will be represented in its upcoming wage arbitration session. 

The AUPE represents everyone from sheriffs, to social workers to government staff.

AUPE President Guy Smith confirmed the union is seeking a wage increase in the range of six per cent for the final year of the contract.

He said it is a starting point for a bargaining position that was informed by cost of living increases, inflation and two years of zero per cent wage increases.

"The fact [they] are now deciding to go public and into the media makes it very difficult to have those very important discussions at the arbitration process. And I don't think an arbitrator is going to look too fondly upon it either," Smith said.

"It's very, very unusual and usually done for political reasons. Or, in this case, it seems to provoke the anger of our members and they're already very angry about a number of issues."

Toews on Wednesday said the government would "respect the arbitration process," even if an arbitrator decides on a wage increase.

"We'll respect this arbitration process, we're committed to that. And I've made it clear when I presented the budget that there is no provision for wage increases in the budget going forward."

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