Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On credibility, Bill 46 and PSE

Yesterday, a judge ordered a temporary stay on the implementation of Bill 46, which would otherwise have imposed a contract on public servants on January 31. This temporary stay (until Valentine’s Day) gives the judge a chance to review AUPE’s application for a long-term stay of the Bill (i.e., until the constitutional challenge can be sorted out).

It has been interesting watching Deputy Premier Dave Hancock try to spin Bill 46 over the past few days. Bill 46 strips the right of civil servants to arbitration and replaces it with a (lousy) legislated contract. Bill 46 also provides that the legislated outcome can be avoided if AUPE (the union representing civil servants) and the government negotiate some other agreement before Friday (or possible March 31, if the government extends the deadline).

Hancock claimed in the Legislature that Bill 46 was designed to bring AUPE back to the bargaining table (this oft-repeated statement is clearly one of the government’s key messages). This ignores that it was the government’s intransigence in the spring that lead AUPE to declare impasse and send the matter to binding arbitration.

After the judge temporarily stayed Bill 46, Hancock said “We are willing to negotiate anywhere, anytime. I hope the AUPE will meet us at the negotiating table.” Apparently Hancock thinks a dynamic that AUPE characterizes as “negotiating with a gun to its head” is a meaningful negotiation. Or maybe he doesn’t think that and his is just trying to make lemonaide while the cameras are rolling.

Anyone with any experience in bargaining can see that the government has little incentive to meaningfully negotiate because it will get the contract it wants regardless of negotiations. And, consistent with this analysis, the government has not made any significant changes in its position since it decided to impose a contract on October 8 (despite several bargaining meeting with AUPE) or, indeed, since its opening offer last March.
Hancock’s clearly fatuous statement undermines the government’s credibility as an honest dealer. Of course the government was already on pretty shaky ground here. For example, last spring the government reneged on its promise of three years of 2% funding increases in post-secondary education (PSE) and then hit the system with a minus seven-and-a-bit cut, which resulted in layoffs and programs closures.

Yesterday Hancock also spoke about the post-secondaryeducation file. His main message was that there won’t be a lot of money in the upcoming budget and the government is working under a three-year plan. Of course, the government was also working under a three-year plan last year… which tells us that budget plans in Alberta are really just political tools to manage dissent and expectations—they don’t actually guide government action.

A more intriguing part of Hancock’s talk was this bit:
He said the government is still interested in pursuing measures championed by Lukaszuk in the advanced education system, such as reducing duplication of programming and commercializing research. But he said his primary goal is assisting universities and colleges and getting out of their way.
 So, on the one hand, government wants to assist institutions and “get out of their way”. On the other hand, the government is still committed to Lukaszuk’s ill-defined (but intrusive) “Campus Alberta” plan (so the government isn’t “getting out of the way”). And there likely isn’t going to be any more cash (which is primarily how the government assists institutions).

Hancock also said the government wants the PSE system to prepare for major enrollment growth. But somehow the system is also supposed to reduce duplication. What “reducing duplication” has actually meant is closing programs and offering fewer courses (because of the government’s funding cut). How a reduction in student spaces jives with rhetoric about preparing for enrollment growth is hard to fathom—because it simply doesn’t.

Hancock is smart and pretty slick. But it is also pretty clear the emperor is facing a wardrobe crisis. If your words are untrustworthy in labour relations, you’ll never get anywhere with the other side. (While annoying, the phrase “show me the money” pretty much sums the government’s present level of credibility.) If the conservative government wants to dig itself out of its messes, it might be worthwhile revisiting this bargaining 101 lesson.

-- Bob Barnetson

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