Alberta’s largest union says a judge has ruled that wage arbitration hearings for ten of thousands of public sector workers can go ahead sooner rather than later.
The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees says Justice Eric Macklin has granted its bid for an injunction preventing the United Conservative government from implementing the recently passed Public Sector Wage Arbitration Deferral Act.
Bill 9 calls for delaying contract provisions for reopened wage talks and binding arbitration for public-sector workers.
LISTEN: AUPE president Guy Smith joins Danielle Smith to discuss the injunction against Bill 9
Under current collective agreements, arbitration hearings were to occur between now and the end of October.
Union president Guy Smith says Macklin’s ruling means the arbitration hearings affecting thousands of government and Alberta Health Services workers will now take place on Aug. 7-9.
Workers affected include nurses, social workers, hospital support staff, prison guards, conservation officers, toxicologists, restaurant inspectors, therapists and sheriffs.
Watch below: Some Global News videos about Bill 9.
“We fought for the rights of workers and we won,” Smith said Tuesday in a release.
“The judge agreed with us that the government cannot arrogantly deny our collective bargaining rights.”
Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews issued a statement to Global News about the court decision on Tuesday night.
“Albertans elected a government that would be responsible with their hard-earned tax dollars,” the statement reads. “Bill 9 is prudent measure. It only provides for a temporary delay to ensure the government has all the relevant financial information before entering into wage negotiations.
“We will be appealing and seeking an expedited hearing.”
The NDP’s labour critic issued a statement in which she referenced a 24-hour filibuster her party staged at the Alberta legislature when the bill was debated earlier this year. During the debate, Premier Jason Kenney was seen handing out earplugs to UCP members.
“A deal is a deal, and this premier’s willingness to tear up a contract should be a grave concern to all Albertans.”
The legislation imposed the delay on unionized workers who took pay freezes in the first years of their contracts but with the right in the final year to negotiate wages.
The two sides stated their positions before Macklin in Court of Queen’s Bench on Monday.
AUPE lawyer Patrick Nugent argued that the legislation is simply an unjustifiable override on a legally binding contract and an attack on constitutionally guaranteed bargaining rights.
He also argued it was done without meaningful prior consultation with unions.
Government lawyers argued that the delay is necessary as Premier Jason Kenney’s new government compiles information on provincial finances to better inform its bargaining position.
A government-appointed panel headed by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon is to deliver its assessment in two weeks on ways the province can save money to get the budget back into balance.
The government also argued there were consultations May 21 to 23 before the legislation was introduced.
While the province has said it needs more financial information, it has already stated its position of zero per cent wage increases in negotiations with AUPE workers and nurses that have now been suspended due to the passage of the bill.
Union leaders have said the bill is simply a stalling tactic as the province prepares to legislate wage cuts to public sector workers.
The bill was not promised by Kenney during the United Conservative’s successful spring election campaign.
Kenney has said the UCP didn’t know about the wage reopeners until after the party won, and brought the bill in on advice from officials.
When it was introduced June 13, hundreds of workers rallied in the legislature rotunda, shouting “shame!”
Unions have been holding information pickets to denounce the legislation.
The bill moved swiftly through the house as Kenney’s government limited debate at all three stages. It passed following a heated all-night debate that saw Kenney walk the aisles of his caucus handing out ear plugs to tune out NDP criticism.
The NDP and the Alberta Federation of Labour say the bill also contains a clause that could be interpreted as giving the government the power to draw up regulations behind closed doors to unilaterally impose new contracts on unionized workers.
The government denies this.
Smith said Macklin’s ruling is a fundamental victory for all workers in Alberta.
“Justice Macklin was very clear that collective bargaining is a right protected by the constitution,” he said. “Governments cannot attack those rights using legislation and the power of the state.”
–With files from Global News’ Phil Heidenreich