A judge could decide as early as Tuesday afternoon whether to grant an injunction against Bill 9, which delays wage talks for 180,000 Alberta public sector workers until Oct. 30.
The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees asked the court Monday to grant the injunction against the Public Sector Arbitration Deferral Act, which passed last month after a week of debate.
If granted, the injunction would allow the resumption of wage arbitration talks for three collective agreements affecting 65,000 AUPE members who work for Alberta Health Services or the provincial government.
The workers agreed to a three-year contract with wage freezes in the first two years, with the understanding that wage talks would be reopened in the final year.
Under the contract, the wage issue was to be decided by an arbitrator by June 30. But Bill 9 put that process on hold until the end of October.
The United Conservative Party government has argued the delay was necessary to get a picture of Alberta’s finances before committing to any wage increases.
The government is awaiting a report from a panel chaired by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, which is due on August 15.
Edmonton Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Eric Macklin asked what additional information the government would need to prove it is in a deficit position.
“Isn’t that fairly common knowledge?” he asked, adding that government negotiators already have the information they need to argue for no wage increase.
Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, a lawyer for the AUPE said the government can’t roll back wages in arbitration.
“The economic information about Alberta’s economic circumstances is known,” Patrick Nugen said. “It’s not clear to me that anything that the MacKinnon panel could come up with would somehow diverge from the almost thousand employees of the Alberta treasury and finance department that have assessed Alberta’s economic circumstances to this point.”
The judge said he would try to have a decision on the injunction ready by Tuesday afternoon, or Wednesday morning at the latest.
Date not important?
Nugent argued the bill breaches workers’ constitutional rights to collective bargaining and harms the relationship between the union and employers.
He said the government did not engage in meaningful consultation with public sector unions before introducing and passing the bill.
David Kamal, a lawyer for the Alberta government, argued a delay in bargaining until the end of October is not significant, as talks can be delayed due to many factors such as scheduling and illness. He said it often takes arbitrators months to reach a decision.
Kamal told the court AUPE members will not be hurt by a delay, since the arbitrator’s decision will be retroactive to April 1, 2019.
If granted, the injunction would allow the arbitration process to continue and set the stage for the AUPE’s challenge of the constitutionality of Bill 9.
Nugent told the court the arbitration panel has set aside hearing dates from Aug. 7-10 in case the injunction is granted.
According to an affidavit from Bryce Stewart, senior assistant deputy minister for treasury board and finance, meetings between the government and the union about the legislation took place from May 21-23.
The meetings with the unions resulted in an impasse, leading the government to introduce the bill on June 13. The bill passed in the early hours of June 20 after an all-night filibuster by the NDP.