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Opinion Labour strife is coming to Alberta - and the province knows it

Former Saskatchewan NDP finance minister Janice MacKinnon has released her blue-ribbon panel’s report – a much-anticipated document commissioned by Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government that will heavily influence and justify the UCP’s first budget in late October. So it’s little wonder that the panel – from its chair to its mandate – was carefully curated by Mr. Kenney’s government. The panel was restricted to finding ways of balancing the budget “without raising taxes,” meaning through spending cuts.

What the province cannot curate is the unavoidable truth that 55 per cent of the provincial budget is dedicated to public-sector wages; you cannot reduce spending without tackling them. Tuesday’s report says that “the salaries and benefits of doctors, nurses and teachers illustrate the extent to which Alberta compensation rates and benefits are higher than comparator provinces.”

While cuts to spending on health, education, advanced education and the public sector are expected, the government is also expecting the fallout: labour strife the likes of which have not been seen in Alberta since 1994, when Ralph Klein’s revolution resulted in spending cuts of more than 20 per cent and thousands of protesters descending upon the legislature.

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It is unlikely that the Kenney cuts will be as deep as Mr. Klein’s, as Alberta’s fiscal position is in much better shape in 2019 than it was in 1994 – but the labour backlash could be even stronger. This is because the previous NDP government had been reducing the rate of spending increases from earlier Progressive Conservative governments and had already frozen wages in many parts of the public sector.

In addition, the NDP explicitly campaigned against spending cuts and warned that the UCP would implement them if they were elected in 2019. Finally, the NDP is ideologically connected to the labour movement, which will be on the front lines protesting Mr. Kenney’s likely cuts. This includes the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA), United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), and the faculty and staff associations of postsecondary institutions.

Make no mistake, a provincial budget that implements many of Ms. MacKinnon’s recommendations will lead to acrimonious debates in the legislature, massive protests, court actions and strikes. And the report itself even acknowledges this.

A close reading of the MacKinnon report shows that the panel expects backlash, and it is possible to glean a three-pronged strategy to address this labour strife. First, it proposes establishing "a legislative mandate that sets the salary levels for all public-sector employees, including all fees and other compensation for insured medical and health services and all third parties, and applies to all negotiations and arbitrations.”

The report concedes that the “Supreme Court of Canada decisions on collective bargaining have limited the power of governments to set aside or impose collective agreements,” but the panel believes it is a “tool that can be used in exceptional circumstances.”

Second, “in the event of a strike, the legislated salary mandate would form the basis for subsequent back-to-work legislation.”

Third, if the courts overturn any wage-restraint legislation, the Kenney government could use the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause. The report notes that “Saskatchewan has used the notwithstanding clause to overturn a court decision on labour relations.”

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This emphasis on recommending a set of legislative tools to implement the wage restraint surprised me most. Developing a strategy on how to reduce spending, as opposed to identifying the amount by which to cut it, was not part of the panel’s terms of reference. But it was consistent with other tactics that the Kenney government has already employed.

Suing the federal government over the carbon tax, proclaiming legislation to “turn off the taps” for oil and gas to British Columbia, creating a war room to defend Alberta’s oil and gas sector, investigating foreign-funding of environmental organizations, and potentially using a provincial referendum on equalization to amend Canada’s Constitution shows Mr. Kenney’s willingness to take his fight to the doorstep of outside foes. The Kenney government is already fighting opponents like the federal government – and soon, it will be fighting the unions.

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