EDMONTON – The Alberta government reached a new contract agreement with its largest public sector union Monday following months of bitter negotiations and court challenges.
“This has undoubtedly been the most challenging round of negotiations that AUPE has ever been engaged in,” Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, told a news conference.
“It’s a deal that we can hold our heads high.”
Smith declined to provide details of the tentative four-year deal, saying the union’s 22,000 members need to be told first. They will vote on the deal in the coming weeks.
Smith would only say that “significant areas of the collective agreement that have not been touched upon for many, many years have been improved on.”
Premier Dave Hancock, in a statement, said he will urge his cabinet to ratify the contract as well.
He said a meeting with Smith last week was critical to getting an agreement.
“It was important that we were able to have that dialogue and that our negotiating teams were able to move forward,” said Hancock.
“Our preferred option has always been to find a solution at the bargaining table, and we’ve been able to do that.”
Smith said Hancock’s personal intervention broke the log jam.
“It’s a very encouraging sign when a sitting premier sits down, recognizes, listens, and respectfully tries to deal with the issues that we brought up,” said Smith.
“Over the past year — and longer — I was trying to get a similar meeting with former premier (Alison) Redford, but was never given that opportunity.”
The agreement is a ray of harmony after a storm of acrimony.
AUPE has been without a contract since March 2013.
When the two sides couldn’t reach a deal last summer, AUPE filed for binding arbitration.
Binding arbitration was granted to AUPE decades ago in return for it not being legally allowed to strike.
However, in December Redford’s government passed a law removing that right of arbitration for this round of bargaining.
The Public Service Salary Restraint Act also imposed an austere four-year wage deal on the public-sector union that included wage freezes or one per cent pay hikes.
Redford said at the time the wage deal was needed to keep costs down and in line with similar deals struck with doctors and teachers.
She also said it would only come into force if the union didn’t come to an agreement.
Instead the AUPE challenged the law in Court of Queen’s Bench.
In February, Justice Denny Thomas agreed AUPE had made a case for bad-faith bargaining and ordered the law put on hold pending an in-depth hearing.
Lawyers for the province were to argue their appeal of Thomas’ ruling earlier Monday, but adjourned it in anticipation of the announcement of the tentative deal.
Relations between labour and the province remain strained on other fronts.
Last year, Redford’s government passed a bill imposing severe six and seven-figure fines and sanctions on AUPE if it launches illegal strikes.
That law remains in force.
Hancock’s government is also debating this session a bill to revamp public-sector pensions to keep them sustainable as the population ages.
However, unions say the pension systems are already on track to erase $7 billion in unfunded liability.
They say the revised law will see staff working longer for less pay, and they are particularly concerned with the plan to do away with mandatory rules for pensions to keep pace with inflation.
Smith said while relations with the province had been “severely damaged over the past year,” the tentative deal provides the tools to repair it.
“But,” cautioned Smith, “there’s a long way to go to rebuild the trust.”