Will Notley’s NDP government play hardball with public sector unions?

CALGARY – The head of Alberta’s largest union said he wouldn’t be surprised if the NDP government came to them with a zero per cent wage increase offer.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees represents 87,000 Albertans working in areas including health care, education and government.

Union president Guy Smith said judging by Premier Rachel Notley’s TV address, there is a clear signal the government wants to protect frontline services, but he’s also expecting some tough talk at the bargaining table.

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    “Our members are aware that employers are playing hardball at the table, but it is something we expect,” said Guy Smith.

    The contract representing around a quarter of AUPE’s members is set to expire next March and the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s four-year agreement runs out at the end of August.

    Political observers said that will be a major test of the NDP  government, considering the NDP and unions were often allies during years of Tory rule.

    “If you listen to Premier Notley’s address on Thursday night, she was talking about controlling costs. But when you looked at the chart, all she was doing was controlling the rate of increase of spending. Given that the largest spending envelopes are in health and education, and given that the largest percentages of both of those are in salaries, that’s where her challenge is going to be,” said Duane Bratt, professor of political science at Mount Royal University.

    Smith said so far, the Notley government has shown ‘a high level of respect’ for AUPE.

    “We know that starting negotiations on that basis is a good place to start because what we did see from the previous government, in particular when Premier Redford was in power, it was a total lack of respect which led to a lot of conflict,” said Smith

    But with tens of thousands of private sector layoffs, the Wildrose opposition has said getting raises in the public sector would be irresponsible and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation has called for a wage rollback for Alberta teachers.

    Bratt predicts that the Alberta’s NDP won’t be as tough on unions as Ralph Klein was when public sector wages were rolled back by five per cent.

    “Her speech was completely opposite of Klein.  And it was designed to be so. They were both dealing with similar economic situations, they both wanted to handle it in a very different way,” said Bratt.

    “To get out of deficit, you can either cut spending, raise taxes – which they have already raised taxes, or you can wait for the price of oil to come back,” said Bratt. “So as much as they’re talking about diversification, I think they’re choosing option C and waiting for the price of oil to come back.”