If 2013 is any indication, 2014 could be another year of fraught relations between Alberta public sector unions and the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Alison Redford – who once counted on those same labour organizations as key backers.
Two contentious labour bills introduced in late November – and passed in days – have led to an array of protests and legal actions by Alberta public sector unions. The blowback is likely to continue into 2014 as Alberta's finance minister looks to introduce legislation to reform public pensions, with measures that include discouraging early retirement and cutting cost-of-living increases.
Public servants made a world of difference for Ms. Redford's Progressive Conservative leadership campaign in 2011 – where many teachers got party memberships and supported her – and in the provincial election in 2012 – when the Alberta Federation of Labour urged voters to pick the Progressive Conservatives to block the more conservative Wildrose party, which was leading the polls. To some extent, the honeymoon continued into late last year when Ms. Redford became the first Progressive Conservative leader that anyone can remember to attend the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) annual meeting. She received a warm reception.
Today, it's a different picture.
"Right now the relationship is very fragile," said AUPE president Guy Smith.
The PC government introduced Bills 45 and 46 in the last week of November and allowed little room for debate. By the first week of December, both bills were passed.
Bill 45 enacts stiffer penalties for "unions and individuals" who launch an illegal strike. The contentious part of the law allows for union leaders – but also any of the 100,000 Alberta public sector workers already prohibited from striking – to be fined for even talking about an illegal strike.
Bill 46, called the Public Service Salary Restraint Act, focuses specifically on the current negotiation between the AUPE and the province for a new contract, which broke down earlier this year. It writes out the option for binding arbitration and imposes a wage settlement if one cannot be found by Jan. 31. It would apply to about three-quarters of Alberta's public servants, not including the broader public service at hospitals, universities, colleges and schools.
Even the opposition Wildrose party, traditionally more conservative than the PCs, has come out swinging. Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith has said while her party argues for "wage restraint," the Wildrose caucus doesn't "agree that the way you impose a settlement, you do so by taking away arbitration rights."
Ms. Smith said she has no problem with harsher fines for union leaders who encourage illegal strikes, "but to have individual penalties on employees who are sitting around in a coffee room, or e-mailing each other, that is a step too far. You don't punish free speech . . . you punish action."
The government said it's simply a matter of living within its means. Earlier this month, Ms. Redford said based on the public sector workers she speaks too, "my sense is that there's an appreciation for what we're trying to do." She added she hopes the AUPE will come back to the table.
But Monday saw more protest, as union leaders and opposition members gathered outside of Calgary Progressive Conservative MLA Neil Brown's office because he compared this year's wildcat strike by correctional workers to the 2011 Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver. "What happens when the very public servants who are sworn to uphold the law and protect the law provoke the unrest and the civil disobedience?" Mr. Brown said in the legislature earlier this month.
Ms. Redford may be genuine in her push to try to rassle down the province's deficit with measures such as trimming back public sector wages. Her government is also likely betting that a significant number of Albertans don't mind a government that takes a tough stand with unions. Or she is hoping that the next provincial election in 2016 is far enough away that both public sector workers, and voters, will forget the bitter battles.
Kelly Cryderman reports from The Globe's Calgary bureau.