On Valentine’s Day, Justice Denny Thomas granted an injunction that effectively suspends the operation of Bill 46 indefinitely. Bill 46 is the Redford government’s effort to legislate a wage freeze for Alberta’s 22,000 civil servants effective March 31. My favourite part of the decision is this:
 …Alberta did not meet its obligation to negotiate in good faith. The timeline and events prior to consideration and passage of Bill 46 are interpreted by me to conclude Alberta never intended that the 2013 negotiations with AUPE were to be meaningful.
Deputy Premier Dave Hancock’s response was brief and bizarre:
The Public Service Salary Restraint Act was passed by the Legislature with the intention of getting AUPE back to the negotiating table, and that has happened.
No reasonable person could reasonably conclude that Bill 46 was designed to bring AUPE back to the table. Indeed, Justice Thomas, who presumably had all of the evidence the government could muster, concluded that negotiations were still ongoing when Bill 46 was enacted:
… Negotiations between AUPE and Alberta were ongoing when Bill 46 was tabled and passed. I do not accept Alberta has proven that an “impasse” had emerged and therefore a legislative response was appropriate.
Bill 46 was really about freezing the wages of civil servants. Wage-freeze legislation is all the rage with conservative governments these days. But I wonder if, somewhat counter intuitively, the government wouldn’t be better off to return the right to strike to civil servants if they really want to hold salary increases at zero.
My thinking is this. If civil servants have the right to strike, then the government can stone wall at the bargaining table indefinitely (thereby denying any increases). This state of affairs continues until the workers force the government to cough up some cash by striking. My guess is that civil servants would be unable to bring that kind of pressure to bear on the Tories.
Yeah sure, for the first few days of a public-sector strike the public might be behind the workers. But eventually the public will realize that civil servants actually do pretty important things (“hey, why is no one tranquilizing that moose in my backyard?” “hey, why is no one getting me the pay my employer illegally deducted?”) and support for the strike would turn to dismay about the disruption.
That dismay would (doubtlessly with government nudging) turn against the workers. Conservatives have spent years creating the image that civil servants are in lazy and pampered because civil servants, for example, trade wage increases for pension plans so they would have adequate retirement income. The nerve of those civil servants, planning for retirement. And funding it themselves with forgone wage increases and contributions out of their own pockets!
Absent public support, there is really zero pressure on politicians to settle a public-sector strike. They have provisions in the Labour Relations Code for public emergency stuff (e.g., keeping ERs open and the lights on). But if the tide turns against the workers, politicians can actually make hay letting the workers walk the line. And save even more money through foregone wages.
Returning civil servants the right to strike would be a much more honest way to hold wage increases at zero than bargaining in bad faith, concocting unconstitutional wage-freeze legislation and trying to pretend that behaviour is anything other than a dirtbag move.
-- Bob Barnetson