A tough-love deal with teachers is nearly in the books, but Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s labour woes are far from over – she still faces pay battles with doctors, civil servants and her fellow MLAs.
The issues came to a head Monday when the Alberta Medical Association (AMA) threatened to sue the province over stalled doctors’ contract talks, while the Wildrose opposition made a show of rejecting a pay hike. Both battles are amplified by the tentative teachers deal.
The doctors’ issue is the foremost battle. Despite being Canada’s best-paid, Alberta’s physicians have been without a contract for nearly two years. Talks are stalled, the government has rejected arbitration and, this month, asked doctors to identify $275-million in cuts.
There’s no love lost between the two sides.
On Monday, Health Minister Fred Horne urged AMA president Michael Giuffre to “show some leadership” and accept Alberta has no more money for doctors. Dr. Giuffre fired back, telling The Globe that Mr. Horne is breaking physicians’ bargaining rights, adding a lawsuit is “very likely.”
Then comes MLA pay, which became a major issue in last year’s spring election after it was revealed a committee was being paid despite not having met for years. Later, in May, Ms. Redford cut and simplified MLA salaries but, in November, raised them by hiking RRSP contributions.
On Monday, Wildrose announced it wouldn’t keep that hike, instead giving it to charity.
The move pushes the MLA pay storyline – once disastrous for Ms. Redford’s party – back into the spotlight against the backdrop of all the other labour talks. “You cannot expect your public sector workers to sacrifice if you’ve got politicians who are not prepared to do the same,” Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said.
Ms. Redford’s Progressive Conservatives, the Liberals and NDP all dismissed calls to also reject the cash.
“Looking at [Wildrose’s] performance, I think they should be donating more of their salary to charity,” Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk deadpanned.
Looming, yet, is a battle with 21,000 front-line government staff, whose collective deal expires this month. The government is already demanding “rollbacks,” Alberta Union of Provincial Employees president Guy Smith said, and the union’s expecting a fight. “It’s not a great atmosphere and, quite honestly, so be it,” Mr. Smith said.
The tentative teachers deal freezes pay for three years, and is now being held up as a template, with Mr. Horne saying doctors should pay attention.
But doctors aren’t teachers. Doctors are paid for services from which they cover overhead, such as rent and staff salaries. The overhead is growing as pay is flat-lined or cut, but Mr. Horne says Canada’s best-paid doctors can afford it.
The argument is “rather shallow, and it’s getting old,” Dr. Giuffre said. An AMA report projects, under what Alberta is offering, the average doctor’s take-home pay will drop 16 per cent over the next three years.
It all leaves Ms. Redford pushing for austerity while other groups dig in their heels and the opposition paints her as greedy.
If anything, the battle that preceded the teachers’ deal is a sign of things to come.
“I think [Ms.] Redford is under this illusion that somehow she can transfer that deal to other groups in bargaining,” Mr. Smith said, concluding: “There’s just no way.”