Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

Over the past few weeks, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice has been sending signals that he plans to address Alberta's deficit through public sector cuts rather than increasing revenue. Over the past two weeks, this has included very confusing messages about public sector wage cuts.

Last week, MLAs voted to take a 5% wage rollback. This 5% rollback is a repeat of former Premier Ralph Klein's efforts to shame and bully public servants into wage rollbacks in 1994. Yet, as the Sun's Rick Bell notes, the current Premier has been rather unclear on what this message is supposed to be:

We inherited a situation where there are existing collective agreements which we obviously have to honour. We’ll deal with the realities of those,” says the premier. 
“We also inherited a situation where there are public sector wage increases, negotiated by previous premiers and governments, that we inherited and that we’re going to have to wrestle with.” 
So the premier is going to wrestle with the pay in the agreements he’s honouring.
It is hard to know what Prentice is signaling. Perhaps he's hoping the unions will accept voluntary rollbacks like they did in the 1990s. The word in the labour movement is a pretty blunt "nope", remembering as they do that rollbacks didn't prevent layoffs in the 1990s and the dirty deeds of the Redford administration only a year ago.

In fact, if you can recall, only a few short months ago Prentice was concerned enough about low morale and high turnover in the public service to appoint a commission to look into it. I wrote at the time that one explanation is that public servants had been ill-treated by the government. More recently, Prentice noted that he was surprised senior bureaucrats were reluctant to provide advice.
One government insider said senior civil servants had “turned turtle” under Redford, afraid to stick their necks out for fear of having them chopped off. They either kept their mouths shut or quit, leading to that “shockingly high” attrition rate and dismal morale. 
Prentice says nowadays cabinet meetings with politicians and civil servants, “are much more respectful, it’s a partnership — they are treated professionally, respectfully.” 
“I expect people to stand up to me and disagree with me. I’ve always expected in my life frank advice, honest advice. I value people that stand up to me, disagree with me and are prepared to have a frank discussion and tell me I’m wrong.”
I'm hardly all that sympathetic to the plight of the highest paid managers. That said, I was struck last week by the story of Alberta's former chief medical examiner, who is suing the government over its failure to renew her contract. Her suit alleges profound political interference and political pandering were at the root of her non-renewal. Prentice allegedly refused to get involved, which casts doubt on his claims that he wants people to stand up and disagree with him.

From where I sit, Prentice has a pretty huge credibility gap--some of which he inherited and some of which he has created on his own--on public sector compensation. In my own workplace, we've had wage freezes in three of the last four years and layoffs. Prentice was elected on a platform of returning fuding to the post-secondary sector yet now there are rumours of further cuts? 

Why on Earth would workers cooperate with their employers when the true employer (the government) clearly cannot be trusted to honour its word from week to week? This fundamental breakdown of trust is a huge liability for public sector managers. And the shifting legal environment in Canadian labour laws makes it more difficult for governments to impose rollbacks.

-- Bob Barnetson

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