Monday, December 23, 2013

Prospects for an AUPE deal in the new year

As 2013 winds down, public-sector labour relations in Alberta remains focused on the dispute between the Alberta Union of Province Employees (AUPE) and the Redford government over the collective agreement for Alberta civil servants. The eventual settlement will likely provide a pattern for upcoming negotiations with the nurses and health services workers as well as for municipalities and their unions.

Bill 46 imposes a COLA of 0-0-1-1% (which was the employer’s offer at the table) on January 31 unless AUPE and the province reach some other deal. While AUPE is pursuing remedy at the Labour Relations Board and through the courts, it is also seeking to politically pressure the government via direct member action (i.e., visits to MLAs). At the same time, the notion that Redford has abandoned the coalition of moderates that got her elected suggests she’s going to need some kind of electoral Hail Mary in 2016.

Does this open the door for a deal?

Well, for all of AUPE’s bluster, its President’s December 18 communication with AUPE’s members closes with a oddly conciliatory commitment to continued bargaining with the province (no matter how hollow the process is): “My commitment remains to obtain a fair deal for members that reflects your economic realities, and those of our province.”

And, on December 13, AUPE provided a new proposal to the government. A quick read suggests the key pieces of this two-year deal include two additional floater days at Christmas, a reduction in the service requirements necessary to earn additional vacation entitlements, a new harassment clause, and a wage bump (I think for most members—hard to tell) of 3% or the Alberta Average Weekly Earnings (whichever is less).

Setting aside the wage settlement, the other pieces contain enough gains for AUPE to claim a victory. And a two-year deal would expire in early 2015, just in time for AUPE to cash in on the pre-election pork barreling that characterized Alberta politics.

I was chatting with my MLA on Friday and she seemed optimistic a negotiated deal would be reached. And Insight Into Government also suggested something in December 20th issue:
Insight tends to think that the legislated negotiations between the gov’t and the AUPE team will produce a contract — oh, let’s say 0-1-1-1% over four years with an added point in years where resource revenue exceeds a certain benchmark—that will satisfy both sides.
So what are the prospects for some kind of deal? Well, both AUPE and the government need a deal. While egregious employer misbehavior is always useful to a union, unions don’t tend to win long-term conflicts (the deck is stacked against them and solidarity can be fleeting). Consequently, the attractions of a reasonable deal tend to be great for a union.

Having established that it is a hard-line rightist government (perhaps to stop the bleeding on the right and cow other public-sector unions), the Tories could also use some good news to start 2014 to address their declining popularity (and funding) as well as slow the growing sense that they are corrupt, untrustworthy and incompetent. A deal with AUPE won’t undo the political damage of the past year, but it is a start.

There are, of course, reasons for AUPE to not reach a deal. Doing so teaches all Alberta politicians that a take-it-or-we’ll-legislate-it approach is an effective way to bargain. Yes, AUPE has inflicted some short-term political pain on the Tories, but the long-term lesson of reaching a deal in these circumstances is that a mailed first is effective. (In theory, a rich deal might mute future governments’ enthusiasm for this approach, but I think a rich deal is unlikely.)

Perhaps, though, Alberta politicians have already learned this lesson. And perhaps AUPE’s members would rather have a COLA bump than stand on principle.

The existence of Bill 45 (which makes illegal strikes prohibitively expensive) might also give AUPE pause. But, if there is money for the membership, AUPE can afford to pursue remedy for Bill 45 via the courts and (perhaps) continued political action against the Tories. Further, while the potential for an illegal strike is a useful lever at the table, unions don’t really like illegal strikes—they are risky and (depending on how they go down) sometimes suggest the union doesn’t have a good handle on its membership.

There are other issues as well. AUPE has mobilized its membership (and, I’d say, this treatment has radicalized a portion of it). Will a modest (or even crappy) deal alienate these members? Maybe, but AUPE may not care—a docile membership is certainly easier to manage than an engaged one.

AUPE has also seen a lot of support from other public-sector unions, including some from which is estranged to some degree. Will cutting a deal that leaves Bill 45 in play be seen as a betrayal? Maybe. But again, AUPE may not care—solidarity is more of a rhetorical device than a lived credo in Alberta.

Then there are the intangibles. The personal animosity between Thomas Lukaszuk and Guy Smith is fairly evident and might hinder a deal. But Lukaszuk seems to have had his wings somewhat clipped (e.g., he’s been much less of an ass on twitter since the cabinet shuffle). And both Smith and Lukaszuk are likely prepared to do a grip-and-grin if the deal is good enough. Those who saw Larry Booi and Lyle Oberg make nice in the wake of the 2002 teacher’s strike know that nothing is impossible in labour relations.

-- Bob Barnetson

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