“Strikes are only one measure of unrest.” Todd Vachon, an assistant professor and director of labor education at Rutgers University.
Did you catch it, that shift in the balance of power?
Last Wednesday Finance Minister Travis Toews issued a statement announcing the government and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) had received the mediator’s recommendation to settle the ongoing contract negotiations. Mr Toews said the government was looking forward to the results of the AUPE’s ratification vote.
That was it. A three sentence announcement. Unusually terse, even for Mr Toews.
The less said the better
What Mr Toews didn’t say was the mediator rejected the government’s proposal calling for a 4% salary rollback and significant reductions in overtime pay and other benefits (it’s all part of Kenney’s plan to cut the public service by $1 billion by 2023-24 from 2019 levels).
The Kenney government argued the wage/benefit reductions were warranted because:
- Alberta spends more per capita on the public service than the other Canadian provinces (as per Kenney’s lopsided MacKinnon Report)
- Alberta’s economy was hit hard by covid and the oil price collapse (a decent covid mitigation plan and a sincere effort to diversify the economy could have helped, no?)
- Unemployment is the highest it’s been since the 1980s (see second bullet)
- Albertans in the private sector lost their jobs or took pay cuts and public service employees must share the pain (perhaps they’d be prepared to share the pain if they were allowed to share the gain; oh wait, government employees don’t get bonuses and stock options),
- Alberta’s government is seeing decreased revenues, increased expenses, higher than anticipated debt and record high deficits (see second bullet).
The mediator disagreed and recommended a one-year salary freeze followed by a 1.25% increase effective Jan 1, 2023, with additional increases to come down the road. .
This was not the first time a mediator or an arbitrator rejected the government’s arguments for wage cuts.
A quick review of the AUPE website for 2021 shows wage rollbacks proposed by ATB, eight Alberta colleges, Alberta Pension Services, and other institutions were tossed out in favour of modest wage hikes.
One would think the Kenney government, perennially antagonistic to the unions, would wave the MacKinnon Report like a flag and charge into battle. Instead it folded. Why?
Perhaps it’s because the premier’s popularity is at such a nadir that he can’t risk triggering a strike or lockout.
Or perhaps Albertans (including the thousands who work for the government) finally realized that even the biggest bully backs down when their victims fight back.
Or perhaps covid, like WW1 and WW2, has changed things forever.
Economist and policy advisor Robert Reich says the pandemic was the last straw for many workers who’ve quit for good or are refusing to return to work until their wages and/or working conditions improve. This created a shortage of replacement workers which has given union and non-union workers real leverage.
The Kenney government made a dog’s breakfast out of contract renegotiations before the pandemic took hold; now almost two years into the pandemic government workers are burned out and frustrated…and the Kenney government offered them even lower pay and fewer benefits. The mediator was clear, this isn’t good enough.
The balance of power has shifted to the unions and if Kenney pushes them too far, they’ll walk. But here’s the interesting thing, the level of unrest in Kenney’s Alberta is so high that if the unions walk many Albertans will be right there with them on the picket lines.
No wonder Mr Toews decided to say as little as possible.