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The Alberta Court of Appeal has sided with the provincial government in its bid to delay wage arbitration for tens of thousands of public sector employees.

In a split decision released Friday, the judges set aside an injunction granted by a lower court in July that had been blocking the delay.

Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government passed the law in June to defer arbitration until at least November.

The government said it first needed to hear from a panel looking at the province’s finances. That panel’s report, released earlier this week, said the province has habitually overspent and restraint is needed.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees challenged the legislation, arguing the law violated three-year contract agreements that froze wages in the first two years, but had a provision for binding arbitration in the third year.

The union sought the injunction to give it time to pursue a separate legal challenge questioning whether the legislation is unconstitutional. That court action is ongoing.

Workers affected include teachers, nurses, social workers, hospital support staff, prison guards, conservation officers, toxicologists, restaurant inspectors, therapists and sheriffs.

AUPE president Guy Smith said the ruling is disappointing, but added it was heartening that it was not unanimous. The union’s lawyers are reviewing it before deciding whether to go to the Supreme Court of Canada, he said.

Finance Minister Travis Toews welcomed the ruling.

“This decision ensures government can make fully informed and prudent economic decisions in the interest of both taxpayers and workers during a time of fiscal restraint,” Toews said in a release.

Smith said arbitration talks for the union’s three largest collective agreements, covering 60,000 workers in government services and health care, managed to go forward last month while the injunction was in place. Most of the union’s side was heard then.

He expects the province will lean heavily on the panel’s report when arbitration resumes.

“The whole report talks about cuts and rollbacks and privatization – all these things that are going to damage public services in the province,” Smith said.

“The panel report could have been written by the premier himself, because it basically falls in line with everything he wants to achieve.”

Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Eric Macklin ruled in July that it was in the public interest to grant the injunction and allowing the delay could cause irreparable harm to future collective bargaining.

Two Appeal Court justices ruled Macklin’s decision rested on errors of principle and was unreasonable.

“In this situation, the government has not purported to take away the right to binding arbitration … but has merely deferred the arbitration for a few months,” wrote Justices Jack Watson and Frans Slatter.

“It is not sufficiently clear that Bill 9 is unconstitutional as to justify an injunction on its implementation.”

Dissenting Justice Marina Paperny wrote that she saw no reason to question the Macklin’s conclusion that a delay could lead to irreparable harm.

“It is well-established that courts have jurisdiction to grant the relief requested by the applicants,” Paperny said.

She said Macklin had to balance several factors.

“On the one hand, the court must be cautious of rulings that deprive legislation enacted by elected representatives of its effect. On the other hand, to insist on legislation being enforced may to be to condone the continuing violation of charter rights by legislation that may prove to be unconstitutional.”

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