Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Freezing public-sector wages by returning the right to strike

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:
[65] …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:
[57]… 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


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Excellent post, as always. I certainly agree with your comments on Minister Handcock’s odd statements, but I disagree with your overall hypothesis.

After more than 25 years in the labour movement, I am not convinced that there is any correlation between public support and success in job action. Even in the public sector.

Looking at Alberta, I believe that the early strikes by registered nurses were not generally supported by the public. Striking nurses were called “baby killers” and endured much ager. But the gains were tremendous. The last strike by registered nurses (1988) had tremendous public support. UNA was fined many hundreds of thousands of dollars - and was able to pay all through donations. But the actual gains made that round were not huge.

And old farts like me can recall growing up in the 1970s. At that time, anger and hatred toward CUPW was the glue that held this country together. Indeed, the relationship between the general public and CUPW was best summed up by then President Joe Davidson, who at the outset of a 42 days strike, responded to a reporter’s question with: “to hell with the public.” His successor, Jean-Claude Parrot was equally unpopular with the general public - there was no rebellion when he was jailed for 2 months for not telling his members to go back to work. But CUPW negotiated some the best agreements in its time, including the first paid maternity leave in Canada.

So my theory, however counter-intuitive, is that even in the public sector, there is no correlation between public support and success in job action. If I am correct, I think there are very serious strategy implications both for public sector unions and for Governments.

I have always thought this would make an excellent research project.

- David Harrigan

Bob Barnetson said...

Fascinating comment, David--both the points you make and the research question it raises. I think you'd need to build into the analysis temporal factors (is the past a reliable guide for the present, given the last 30 years of union bashing?) and geographic factors (are cases outside of Alberta relevant?).

I also wonder if public support might benefit from being conceptualized in more nuanced ways. For example, one might hate (or love) the strike, but still exert pressure on the government to end it because of how it affects your life. Very interesting ideas.

Bob Barnetson said...

An interesting update on AUPE negotiations. The province made some significant moves but still seems stuck on wage freezes. Sounds a like a loser position at arbitration so perhaps the game plan is to go to arbitration, lose and blame the arbitrator? http://www.aupe.org/news/government-sticks-to-wage-freeze-demands-while-posting-14-billion-surplus/

That's a viable approach (available to the government since the beginning) but accepting it seems like a pretty serious condemnation of the whole Bills 45&46 "strategy".

Bob Barnetson said...

And now the government has posted its latest (and "best") offer online. Hancock sounds exasperated.


Unknown said...

Yes, I think you may be correct on the last paragraph. Also, it is important to remember that public support certainly makes it easier for people to man a picket line. But if I am correct, union leaders would be wise to concentrate their money and time not on trying to sway public opinion, but rather on educating their members on how to stay solid in the face of public opposition.
- David Harrigan