Canada has a long tradition of governments using their power as legislators to give themselves a further advantage in their role as an employer. This is called permanent exceptionalism. Basically, governments pass laws undermining public-sector workers’ bargaining power, justifying them as temporary and exceptional interventions, except they are neither.
My colleagues Jason Foster and Susan Cake and I published a study of legislative interventions in labour relations from 2000 to 2020 in a recent issue of the Canadian Labour & Employment Law Journal (vol 25, issue 1) called “Catch me if you can”: Changing forms of permanent exceptionalism in response to Charter jurisprudence.”
The upshot is that, during a time when the Supreme Court was finding that workers’ associational rights in the Charter included the right to collectively bargain and strike free from substantial interference, the rate of government interference significantly increased (tripling over the 1990s). Basically, governments have become addicted to rigging the game against public-sector workers.
Back in 2019, Alberta’s UCP government passed the Public Sector Employers Act. The PSEA allowed the government to give public-sector employers secret and binding bargaining mandates. This made the 2020 round of public-sector bargaining a hollow and fettered process (our study about this is currently in review) and let the government drive home a combination of wage freezes, miserly wage increases, and other rollbacks. This built upon a similar strategy use by the NDP government in the 2017 round of bargaining that also delivered several years of wage freezes.
Presently, the legislature is debating Bill 5, which amends the PSEA. The headlines around this Act have focused on how the government will be better able to attract certain types of public-sector workers (i.e., wages are too low) while also now controlling the wages for non-unionized workers via secret bargaining directives. In the house, the NDP is flagging how Bill 5 opens the door to pork-barrelling for public-sector CEOs.
Almost no one is examining how Bill 5 extends the original secret mandate powers. The new bill allows the government to create employer committees and associations to coordinate (and perhaps perform) bargaining, potentially on sector-wide bases. This is pretty much how it works at the big tables in education, health-care, and the core civil service now.
But, for the 250-odd bargaining tables among agencies, boards, and commissions, these amendments would allow for big changes. In theory, employers could bargain cooperatively against dozens and dozens of disparate small unions and union locals, each bargaining on their own. Combined with an inflexible government mandate, this would make it very hard for these workers to get a decent deal and would make it much easier for the government (via these employers) to drive further concessions into these contracts. There are no similar provisions for sectoral bargaining arrangements for workers.
Alberta is already suffering from significant staffing shortages in health-care and education. Further grinding wages and hollowing out of public sector-bargaining (combined with the government threatening to take control of Albertan’s Canada Pension Plan contributions and its efforts to grab up public-sector pensions) will make Alberta an unattractive place for new graduates to stay.
-- Bob Barnetson