EDMONTON – Alberta’s largest union is in no hurry to use its newly won right to strike to squeeze a big raise from the cash-strapped NDP government.
The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) says up to 75,000 of its members will be in collective bargaining in 2017, including people who work directly for the government, Alberta Health Services and some other public sector organizations.
President Guy Smith says the union’s contract proposals will be tempered by the realities of the economic downturn, including the tens of thousands of people in the private sector who have lost their jobs because of the slumping oil industry.
But the union’s right to take job action will be a factor.
“With that newly established right comes responsibility to use it prudently and make sure that all it does is allow us, if necessary — if negotiations break down, to have resources and rights that we didn’t have before,” Smith said Thursday in an interview from the union’s annual convention in Edmonton.
“So we are not going and storming the barricades saying, ‘yes, we are going to walk off the job.’ I don’t think our members are in that kind of mood.”
In the spring, the Alberta government passed a law to comply with a Supreme Court ruling that public sector workers have the right to strike. The Progressive Conservatives barred AUPE from legal walkouts when the union formed in the 1970s.
Smith said the union is still working on its monetary proposals as it prepares for what he calls the biggest round of talks in its history.
The union expects the government and related employers will come to the bargaining table preaching restraint.
Smith suggested the emphasis in bargaining could focus more on issues other than wages.
“We do now have a government, I think, that is much more aware of the other issues that we bring to the table other than monetary issues — working conditions, workload, and the other things that need to be addressed in the collective agreements,” Smith said.
“We need to be creative in terms of developing proposal language that addressed numerous issues that over the years the previous governments have completely ignored.”
AUPE worked against the previous Progressive Conservative government with its Preparing for Change and The Alberta Way campaigns in the hope of influencing the outcome of the 2015 provincial election. The union’s website notes the NDP didn’t topple the Tory dynasty alone.
Smith said the union must take into account the political challenge facing the NDP government, which is to have a deficit of $10.9 billion by the end of the fiscal year and an accumulated debt of $58 billion by the end of the decade.
Alberta’s opposition parties are expected to pay close attention to the cost of whatever agreement is reached with AUPE.
“It will obviously be a challenge for this current government to be able to publicly stand by what they end up negotiating,” Smith said.