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New Report Highlights Government Interference Ahead of Major Public-Sector Bargaining Round

Edmonton, AB — As about 200,000 Alberta public-sector workers gear up for contract negotiations in 2024, a timely report from the Parkland Institute sheds light on unprecedented levels of government interference in Alberta’s public-sector bargaining. Authored by Jason Foster, Bob Barnetson, and Susan Cake, A Thumb on the Scale: Alberta Government Interference in Public-Sector Bargaining examines how governments in Canada — and particularly in Alberta — have been increasing their rate of interference as they experiment with new ways to do so.

“Governments across Canada have been playing a game of cat and mouse with working people and their unions,” says report co-author Jason Foster. He explains that even though in theory labour rights in Canada are evolving, governments are finding ways to comply with these rights in the most minimal ways possible to preserve their ability to achieve their political goals.

The report shows that, despite Supreme Court decisions aimed at curtailing government interference in public-sector collective bargaining, the rate of interference has actually increased, to a level almost triple that of the 1990s. Governments use a range of tools, including back-to-work legislation to interfere with public sector bargaining rights.

Secret mandates – Governments are finding new ways of making sure they can manipulate bargaining outcomes: “Governments have shifted their approach, moving away from imposing settlements and focusing on creating the conditions that help them obtain their desired settlements instead,” explains Foster.

Nowhere this is more clear than in the Government of Alberta’s recent introduction of the “secret mandate” —  a set of directives given by the Minister of Finance to public-sector employers that cannot be shared with unions or publicized in any way. “This was a first in Canada,” says Foster, noting that this new form of interference is likely to be adopted elsewhere in the country.  

Adopted for the first time in the bargaining round of 2020, the “secret mandate” strategy was a blow to the transparency of the bargaining process. These mandates hinder unions from understanding the full scope and constraints of the employers' positions, placing them at a significant disadvantage. The secret mandates also had the effect of prolonging bargaining periods and increased reliance on mediation.

The 2024 bargaining round – As Alberta heads into another round of public-sector bargaining in 2024, government intervention is expected to persist and evolve. Evidence of this continued evolution is the recent introduction of Bill 5, which amends the Public Sector Employers Act allowing for the creation of bodies to facilitate employer coordination of bargaining across sectors. “There is little evidence to suggest that the aggressive, anti-union tone taken by the UCP in the previous round will be any different this time around,” says Foster.

The report concludes by offering several options for how public-sector workers and their unions can respond to growing government interference, both at the bargaining table and through increased political pressure. Any move toward sectoral employer associations, for example, will require increased sectoral cooperation and coordination among Alberta public-sector unions. “Faced with centralized bargaining, unions in other provinces developed a coordinated strategy that maximized their bargaining power,” explains Foster. 

Unions may also wish to legally challenge whether the secret mandates are a violation of workers’ Charter-protected freedom of association, since they substantively interfere with collective bargaining, as well as encourage members to place pressure on UCP Members of the Legislative Assembly (and their donors) to respect free collective bargaining. 

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For the full report, visit https://www.parklandinstitute.ca/a_thumb_on_the_scale    

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Rita Espeschit
Parkland Institute Communications Coordinator
[email protected]

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