An Alberta judge excoriated Premier Alison Redford's government Friday for what he described as deceptive, high-handed, unfair bargaining tactics designed to "emasculate" its largest public-sector union.
Court of Queen's Bench Justice Denny Thomas ordered a freeze on a controversial law that was set to impose an austere four-year wage deal on the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees while revoking its right to binding arbitration.
The AUPE has argued the Public Service Salary Restraint Act strikes a mortal blow to its ability to bargain and Thomas agreed to hold the law in abeyance until the issue is resolved.
Thomas said in a written decision Friday that the act "guts the bargaining process by removing an effective leverage on the part of the workers, who as a result of other provincial laws (that ban their right to strike) cannot withdraw their labour.
"The effect of the legislation is to emasculate the AUPE ... Alberta did not meet its obligation to negotiate in good faith."
Guy Smith, president of the AUPE, called it a victory against a dangerous government.
"I think it behooves this government to step back and quite honestly look at the way it uses its legislative majority to crush the rights of, not just Alberta workers, but Albertans in general," Smith told a news conference.
He said the union is now seeking new dates for arbitration hearings, but will continue to negotiate with the government in the meantime.
Regardless of the outcome, Smith said, Redford may have burned all her bridges with the unions that gave her Progressive Conservatives key support in the 2012 election campaign.
"There's always an opportunity to rebuild bridges," said Smith. "But maybe it's a bridge too far."
Deputy premier Dave Hancock was to speak to reporters Friday afternoon about the ruling, but that changed to a three-paragraph statement sent by email.
"We are disappointed by the decision," wrote Hancock. "We believe the judgment contained errors in both fact and law.
"As a result, we are appealing the decision ... A negotiated settlement that is fair to employees and taxpayers is — and always has been — our preferred option."
NDP Leader Brian Mason said Redford should repeal the law.
"(The Tories) don't care whose rights they violate or what laws they break in order to obtain their objectives," said Mason. "They are absolutely unfit to govern."
The AUPE represents more than 22,000 government staffers, from social workers to prison guards.
They have been without a contract since last March.
Thomas noted that the two sides had made some progress on a new deal but, when the government walked away from talks last July, the AUPE filed for binding arbitration, as is its right under the law. That led to the government passing the restraint law in December.
Thomas said given that the legislation wiped out other contract points already agreed to by both sides, "this raises the question of whether those negotiations were ever conducted in good faith or were merely camouflage for a different agenda."
The AUPE was given binding arbitration decades ago in return for legislation banning its right to strike.
However, in the closing days of the fall sitting, Thomas noted the Redford government rammed through two bills in days with no notice or consultation, and used its majority to sharply curtail debate.
The first bill, the Public Service Salary Restraint Act, legislated a four-year deal on the AUPE if no negotiated agreement could be reached by Jan. 31. The government later extended the deadline to March 31. Thomas's ruling puts it on hold indefinitely.
The legislated deal called for wage freezes in the first two years, followed by one per cent hikes in each of the following two years.
Redford said at the time the bills were necessary to match similar hold-the-line wage deals signed by doctors and teachers to help balance the budget.
The second bill imposed severe six and seven-figure fines and sanctions on the AUPE if it launched illegal strikes and remains in force.