Wednesday, November 27, 2013

New labour legislation in Alberta


Two interesting development in Alberta labour relations today.

Bill 46 imposes a contract settlement on public service workers unless they and the province reach an alternate agreement by January 31, 2014. The imposed settlement sees cost of living adjustments 0%, 0%, 1% and 1% with a $875 one-time payment in the second year. 
  
In effect, the government has decided to avoid interest arbitration (which is how bargaining impasse is settled in the public sector) and simply legislate its most recent offer. Union leaders and rank-and-file members are pissed, but they also face Bill 45, which sets out severe consequences for illegal job action.

In Bill 45, illegal strikes in the public sector (which have been highly effective at compelling the government of Alberta to make fair contract settlements) will be punishable by automatic dues suspensions, civil liability, prosecutions and administrative penalties. This Bill is mooted as a response to the illegal jail guard strike of earlier this year. But, of course, it will significantly increase the cost to unions and union members of all manner of illegal strikes.

Presumably there will be the usual bluster and court challenges and whatnot. The bigger picture though is that, with strikes illegal and illegal strikes basically so costly as to be unavailable, the government has channeled employee dissatisfaction into strategies of (1) exit and (2) neglect. Basically, frustrated workers are either going to leave for other jobs or they are going to quietly renegotiate their wage-effort bargain in the workplace. As one government employee who is hardly a union hard-liner told me, “In the last six months the government has frozen my wages and attacked my pension plan and I’m pissed off.” 

One of the knock-on effects of alienated workers is that quality of the work performed by government workers is likely to decline. Ministers may well find themselves with a lot more political problems to deal with and a lot less useful advice from civil servants. More interestingly, there may even be individual or small-group efforts at resistance--because employees have no other way to express their frustration and no confidence that their collective bargaining process is meaningful.

On the upside, this move should also permanently alienate the moderate voters and trade unionists who supported Alison Redford against the Wild Rose in the last election, leaving the PCs and the Wild Rose to duke it out for the support of right wingers and ensure one or the other forms a minority government.

-- Bob Barnetson

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