23 March 2015

Prentice makes nice to labour

When governments find themselves in a financial bind they tend to make the civil service their first budget target. Overpaid public servants is a popular cliche. Alberta Premier Jim Prentice, his government facing a $7-billion deficit, appeared to be taking that tried and true approach, calling public sector wages unsustainable and pointing to $2.6-billion of wage increases over the next three years.

It was refreshing, therefore, to see him take a more constructive tone last week. Following a meeting with leaders of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the United Nurses of Alberta, Health Sciences Association and the Canadian Union of Public Employees Alberta, he was the soul of conciliation toward the brothers and sisters.

He not only assured them he would not attempt to roll back wages, he promised to revoke Bill 45, a measure that restricted union activity and imposed prohibitive fines for illegal strikes. The bill, passed in 2013 during former premier Alison Redford's brief regime but never proclaimed, seriously divided the government and its employees. It was being challenged in the courts by the United Nurses of Alberta as a Charter violation. The premier stated it should never have been introduced in the first place and hoped that with it out of the way a more respectful tone will be set for labour negotiations. The union leaders expressed that they, too, hoped the meeting would mark a respectful turn in the province's relations with labour.

“This is not about rolling back contracts," said Prentice. "It’s about working together to define solutions as we go forward that reflect the fiscal circumstances we’re in.” On his part, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees president Guy Smith declared that repealing Bill 45 removed an obstacle for future discussions and added, "I really believe that we heard a strong commitment from the premier and his ministers ... to make sure things do improve for everybody.”

All this represents a civilized approach to the relationship between government and its employees, all too often absent at a time of financial challenge. It bodes well for the province's future.

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