Lacombe AUPE members protest Bill 9 with picket at hospital

Local AUPE members gather for a group photo outside the Lacombe Hospital and Care Centre during an information picket protesting the United Conservative Party government's Bill 9 which defers wage talks until the end of October. More than 20 people took part in the picket throughout the two and a half hour period it went on for. Ashli Barrett / Lacombe Globe

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Local members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) raised issue with the United Conservative Party (UCP) government’s Bill 9 during an information picket outside the Lacombe Hospital and Care Centre last Wednesday.

Labelled the Public Sector Wage Arbitration Deferral Act, the bill delays wage talks until after Oct. 31, 2019 while the government waits for review of the province’s finances – a move AUPE calls an “egregious attack” on their member’s constitutional rights.

“We currently have a collective agreement in place where members took a two-year wage freeze knowing the third year would give them a wage opener. What Bill 9 does is stop the process of that happening – it stops our fundamental right to bargain a collective agreement that was agreed upon by both parties at the time,” said AUPE Vice President Karen Weirs.

“We negotiated in good faith and have not seen that respectfully returned.”

Introduced after the government tried and failed to get arbitrators already working on negotiations with AUPE and the nurses union to delay wage opener talks. The bill was passed and received royal assent on June 28 after an all-night debate.

AUPE members picketing the UCP government’s Bill 9, which defers wage talks, wore signs with messages like “A deal is a deal,” “Respect the contract,” and “No to Bill 9” on Wednesday, July 3, 2019 outside the Lacombe Hospital and Care Centre. Ashli Barrett / jpg, LG

AUPE, however, said the fight against it isn’t over, and information pickets have been held across the province over the past week, including in Leduc, Lac la Biche, Vegreville, Tofield, Lamont and Two Hills. Hundreds turned out to show their disgust over the bill at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary.

The picket in Lacombe was organized on behalf of local members who “wanted to show their anger and disappointment in this government for the bill.” More than 20 people donned signs with anti-Bill 9 messages, and those on shift at the hospital joined in as breaks allowed.

The bill is expected to affect 180,000 public sector workers from nurses and hospital support staff, to conservation officers, toxicologists, prison guards, restaurant inspectors, therapists and the sherriffs tasked with guarding politicians and staff in the Legislature.

Beyond the four-month delay of wage talks is concern of the precedent Bill 9 sets.

“No where in their platform did they mention going against collective agreements, nowhere was it mentioned they would dishonour collective agreements,” said Weirs.

“If they can do this at this point, what will they do for the next bill that comes out that can stop processes and legal contracts?”

AUPE has launched an injunction, with the court hearing scheduled for July 29. If granted, the injunction would allow wage arbitration to go ahead as originally negotiated.

They also filed a statement of claim against the UCP in the Court of Queen’s Bench, saying the bill is a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

However, Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ron Orr said legal advice the UCP received said the deferral was within their rights as it only pertains to the deferral of the date for negotiation and leaves everything else in the contract in tact.

“The wage negotiation piece clearly states that any agreement that is reached on any of these later dates is retroactive to April 1, so it’s not like they’re going to get cheated out of any money,” Orr said. “Our approach is we need to try and act with a responsible, measured approach to our finances. We just want time to find out where we’re at.”

He said he thought a lot of the opposition was a political strategy of the NDP to use Bill 9 as a ” wedge issue to try and make it something that puts us in a bad spot.”

He noted the initial date for wage talks to begin was Jan. 15, 2019, meaning the issue could’ve been resolved by the previous NDP government prior to the election. Instead, the UCP government was asked to resolve it by June 30, despite only beginning their first sitting a the start of the month.

“It makes it tough for us to know where we’re at in terms of the books, what we can offer, what we can’t offer,” he said.

“I don’t blame the unions for wanting to force negotiation at a time when it’s to their advantage and our disadvantage, but we have a responsibility to the taxpaying people of Alberta to ensure we go into negotiations forearmed with the knowledge of where we’re at and negotiate responsibly.

However, there’s doubt from AUPE that negotiations will go ahead as the government says.

“The language talks about delaying (negotiations) until the end of October, but you can ask the government themselves if they plan on honouring that,” Weirs said.

“We, as members of the union and the union itself, are not taking what the government is saying as truth.”

 

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