The Year of Bargaining Diplomatically

Public-sector negotiations in the Notley era

By Harry Vandervlist

Last year the government of Alberta faced a mountain of public-sector contract negotiations. A whole mountain range, actually. Collective agreements covering roughly 180,000 employees expired: over 40,000 members in the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA); over 30,000 nurses of the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA); some 19,000 paramedics, lab workers and support staff in the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA); and finally the diverse blend of 90,000 public servants in the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE)—together enough workers to populate Red Deer, St. Albert and Lloydminster combined.

With lower revenues and a growing budget deficit, how could the province possibly hope to meet public employees’ demands? Now add a new wrinkle in the form of a 2015 Supreme Court decision granting all of these workers the legal right to strike. David Harrigan, director of labour relations for the UNA and a negotiator with 38 years of experience, summed it all up in five words: “A recipe for massive disaster.”

Given such considerations, what’s the best way for our government to make agreements with the teachers, nurses, laboratory staff and other workers who provide us, the citizens, with services and get paid with our taxes? Perhaps it’s best to threaten them and call them overpaid, underworked and unproductive. And then, once they’re really trembling, to extract the maximum cuts to pay and staff. That’s actually a pretty standard approach. But what if instead our government sat down with public servants as valued employees and had mutually well-informed discussions about what’s desirable and possible with respect to working conditions and pay?

Rachel Notley’s government, facing a record number of public-sector negotiations and other unique pressures, decided to begin with a respectful approach. It’s fascinating to see how far their process differed from the contempt Albertans had grown accustomed to over the past 20 years. Meanwhile, it’s becoming clear what this has achieved for Albertans in lower costs and labour peace.

Even as negotiations slowly progressed in 2017, some commentators pined for the old methods. In February the Calgary Herald editorial board seemed to speak against even a pretense of good-faith bargaining: “The problem with pretending that the bargaining process should be allowed to play out [my italics] is there’s a likelihood that public wages will increase.” Sounds like asking for a return to the Ralph Klein era.

What was bargaining like back then? As a thought experiment, let’s cue the time-travel effects. Picture some calendar page flipping, some newspaper front page spinning—presto, it’s 1997. Klein was re-elected as premier in March, having imposed 20 per cent cuts to spending during his first mandate. Reader, I was there. With the board of The University of Calgary Faculty Association (TUCFA), I helped bargain with a government whose cupboard wasn’t simply bare—it was only 4/5 its former size. A 21 per cent cut from post-secondary budgets meant we sure weren’t bargaining for a pay raise.

“Both sides are taking labour relations seriously, rather than seeing who blinks first.” —David Harrigan, UNA

Wait, though—what else do unions bargain for? Anyone who hasn’t worked in a job with collective bargaining might well ask this question. The answer: every aspect of working conditions and every kind of employee benefit can be part of a union negotiation. So plenty is left to discuss, from overtime rules to how duties get assigned to parental leave or care for sick family. (If you’ve ever wondered why negotiations can seem to drag on forever, here’s one big reason. Each side brings a wish list that involves so much more than wages, and each item has to be haggled over and then taken “home” to the government or the union to see what’s acceptable. Then another round of discussion can begin, and so on for each item on the wish list. When meetings can take place only every few weeks, you see how the process can last a year or more.)

Even the simple questions “Who’s in this bargaining unit? Who benefits from whatever gets negotiated?” can prove to be major issues. That’s why back in the 1990s TUCFA, though stalled on pay, aimed to enlarge the membership. “Sessionals,” or contract-based teachers, became members of TUCFA for the first time. We requested very basic things for them, like access to phones, mailboxes and space to meet students. We sought recognition for instructors who had taught, sometimes for decades, without benefits, job continuity or a decent fraction of a full-time salary. From that abject position, we slowly negotiated a career path from professor-on-contract to continuing faculty member. All worthy accomplishments. So yes, extremely valuable things can be accomplished in any negotiation, no matter the employer’s fiscal situation.

Still, it’s painful to recall how dire the atmosphere was back then, how poisoned by persistent ideological bullying. Public-sector workers were demonized by the government as inefficient and overpaid: a “cost centre.” Everything we did, we were told, could be done better and more cheaply by for-profit replacements. These were and are mostly yet to be invented, but in the education world, one was real: the for-profit DeVry Institute was a darling of the Klein government, which gave the school degree-granting status in 2001. (How did that turn out? DeVry closed its Calgary campus in 2017 and in the US paid $100-million to settle lawsuits claiming they promoted false student success rates.)

Privatization and profit were supposed to solve every problem. I vividly remember a confrontation at one of the many, many focus groups, round-table discussions and so on which sucked up all the air in the 1990s. The gist of these sessions was that public-sector workers—in my case, professors—would meet with private sector “stakeholders” who, through some unspecified contagion mechanism, would transmit their innovativeness and entrepreneurialism to us inefficient socialists. The entrepreneurs at these events were civic-minded people, donating their time. But this one day, I was being lectured by someone about how public universities shared the defects of public libraries. These were a dumb kind of thing, because “a library is just like a bookstore, it’s a place to get books. Except a bookstore has a business plan, and a library just picks the taxpayer’s pocket.”

Instead of taking to heart the obvious lessons for universities—Privatize! Monetize!—I ranted about how utterly different the mandates of bookstores and public libraries actually are. Bookstores: they stock popular things, don’t waste space on slow sellers, serve clients who have money. Public libraries: they serve a wide (even destitute) public, keep everything available in case the need arises, function as a collective repository of knowledge for the community. The public-interest perspective fell on deaf ears; a rigidly market-based view of society was relentlessly pressed at these sessions.

Even after Klein, public-sector bargaining was difficult. The refusal to see unions as legitimate partners hampered efforts at reasonable conversation. Witness the debacle of Bill 46: The Public Service Salary Restraint Act, which wage-freeze bill was deemed illegal and was suspended by a court injunction in February 2014. Then-premier Alison Redford resigned shortly afterward, and in April the affected AUPE members were offered a 6.75 per cent salary increase over three years, plus a lump sum. This agreement (a deal lots of Albertans at the time might have pronounced “not too shabby”) is one of the many that expired in 2017.

“The government was firm but fair in its approach. Its expectations were clear.” —ATA president Greg Jeffery

The negotiations of 2017 couldn’t have been more different from those of 1997. Yes, low revenues created pressure, but both parties now shared a crucial underlying consensus. Alvin Finkel, professor emeritus of history at Athabasca University, explains this key point: “The NDP is more sympathetic to the notion of governments actually doing things, while more-conservative parties see anything governments do apart from protecting property and putting certain people in prison as unnecessary and undesirable. For the NDP, some services—like health and education—are not commodities, and they’re not willing to leave them to the goodwill of the private sector.” Today, Albertans in these public-sector jobs are not seen as expensive parasites but as helpful partners in work that governments must do.

Hence the new approach. It began, in the view of Bob Barnetson, professor of labour relations at Athabasca University, by emphasizing “respect, not laying anyone off—basically the opposite of every PC negotiation, which was more of a lesson in how not to proceed.” The new tone was more pragmatic and informed than Albertans have seen for decades. A controversial decision to hire Kevin Davediuk, a former staff negotiator for the AUPE, as the government’s own “chief adviser on negotiations” played a role here. Then-Wildrose MLA Derek Fildebrandt deployed the “fox guarding the henhouse” cliché to describe Davediuk’s appointment. Finance Minister Joe Ceci countered by stressing Davediuk’s expertise as “somebody who has the respect of both sides of the table, is known as a fair negotiator and who can help us bend the curve on expenses.” As Barnetson explains, putting an insider like Davediuk at the helm meant “there were no secrets on either side.”

The “no secrets, everybody working together” method laid the foundation for the epic bargaining of 2017. With the ATA, the innovative NDP strategy was to negotiate an umbrella agreement with all 61 bargaining units instead of dealing with individual school boards. This was a “let’s get real” approach, in the sense that government has always been a virtual presence in such negotiations—after all, they pay the bills. Passing Bill 8 to create a single Teachers’ Employer Bargaining Association simply made this presence formal and explicit. As ATA president Greg Jeffery explains the process, “Some matters were bargained at a central table that included government and school board representatives and others were bargained at local tables… The government representatives were fair but firm in their approach. They were clear with their expectation that negotiations would not result in
salary increases.”

The teachers’ settlement was a start, but it didn’t guarantee ongoing labour peace. The deal included a much discussed “me-too clause” (unfortunately named before Harvey Weinstein’s disgrace prompted the Twitter hashtag #MeToo), which made the ATA’s acceptance of 0 per cent salary increases conditional upon later public-sector agreements. As Barnetson pointed out to the Edmonton Journal, such terms indicated a low level of initial trust between the parties because the teachers “didn’t want to get screwed by signing early and have someone else negotiate a better deal.”

For nurses at least, any deal at all was slow to emerge. In late 2017 the UNA’s David Harrigan said no one was “phoning me up to say, ‘What can I offer you today?’” Still, Harrigan saw the more direct involvement of government—just as in the ATA process—as a highly positive step: previously “there’d never been a representative of government right there at the table.” The new approach he saw involves “taking labour relations seriously, rather than hammering down and waiting to see who blinks first.” Creating a respectful tone is not limited to bargaining-table actions. Notley was, in 2016, the first Alberta premier ever to address an annual general meeting of the UNA. What better way to say “We’re allies, not enemies.”

Despite this, by September the UNA had made only slow progress. Their priorities were to achieve a three-year agreement, without layoffs, and to clarify staffing issues (for example ensuring that registered nurses or RPNs are in charge of each unit). In fall 2017 they agreed to voluntary external mediation. Harrigan saw this as an encouraging sign, however: “If this were the old PC party, they wouldn’t be taking this approach, and one result might have been increased threats of job action.”

The nurses’ patience paid off by February 2018, as almost 90 per cent of the UNA membership ratified a three-year collective agreement. The deal sees no wage increases for two years but has a proviso to renegotiate in year three. Better job security and non-salary clauses balance the deal.

Like the UNA, the HSAA went to mediation in late 2017. February saw a tentative agreement, again with two years of zero salary growth, offset by what HSAA president Mike Parker called “real improvements to work–life balance issues.” At time of writing, this deal had not been ratified by HSAA members.

But while the NDP has established a promising trend, a definitive conclusion is hard to make—especially while the 90,000-member AUPE has yet to reach agreement. A late 2017 bargaining bulletin for several government services locals wasn’t promising: “…agreement on many of the [AUPE’s] priority items, like job security, workload, job classifications, hiring practices, contracting out and more, have yet to be seriously discussed and are tied to a monetary agreement.”

Negotiations between the Notley government and public sector workers have demonstrated increased respect, trust and mutual understanding. But these conditions may still be fragile. Late last year the government began to speak of “compassionate belt-tightening.” Finance Minister Joe Ceci, following his November economic statement, was accused of bargaining through the media when he said he hoped all unions would follow the ATA’s example and accept a voluntary (i.e., not imposed) two-year wage freeze. AUPE president Guy Smith quickly responded that this “damages the relationship at the table.” To request a wage freeze is not to impose one, and yet the HSAA, too, quickly voiced displeasure. Parker tweeted in November that “the finance minister pledged to both protect front-line services and impose a hiring freeze. These two actions are incompatible.”

But both the government and public-sector unions need to see the process work. Though stagnant salaries are no fun, a UCP win in the next provincial election could mean cuts. Finkel suggests public-sector workers “don’t want what the UCP is promising. This is a party led by a guy that came out of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.” Jason Kenney hasn’t announced a specific plan to reduce the public-sector wage bill but has promised “a period of sustained fiscal restraint.” In this context, Finkel says, it’s strategic for unions to think “short-term and long-term, and to see the danger that high wage settlements could lead to anger, which could lead to a UCP victory.” Neither side wants to push the other too far and risk confirming clichéd narratives that NDP governments, by their nature, “give away the store” to unions.

“Our agreement brings real improvements to work–life balance issues.” —HSAA president Mike Parker

Meanwhile, in its mostly low-drama way, the NDP has quietly done things that a conservative party would be publicizing as cost-slashing victories. Public-sector costs are being cut simply through attrition: when workers leave or retire, “replacement is very slow, or does not happen at all. With turnover, this can save 10 per cent in salary costs—but that’s not a well you can go to endlessly,” says Barnetson, citing risks of staff burnout and low morale. These are the very issues raised in response to Klein’s 1990s cuts and mentioned again more recently by the HSAA.

Public-sector workers and the government began 2018 with much unresolved. What difference will the outcome of ongoing negotiations make to Alberta’s general public? Ask the residents of Cold Lake, whose senior-care home Points West Living faced a strike from December 2016 into the summer of 2017. This was an action by private-sector workers, though both the AUPE and HSAA sent pickets in support. Any strike by teachers, nurses or government workers would similarly affect Albertans with kids, with health concerns or who use any kind of government services—in other words, you, me and everybody.

Short of a strike, less drastic job actions such as work-to-rule could discredit the Notley government where it hurts most. Kenney must pray each night that this happens. But if, on the other hand, the NDP maintains both labour peace and demonstrably reduces public-sector costs—a goal that seems increasingly achievable—they’ll be able to claim that an NDP government is not inevitably “hostage to labour” but instead uses its knowledge of unions and respect for them to serve the broader public interest.

For Notley’s government, the stakes couldn’t be higher if they hope for a second mandate. It’s telling that instead of complaining about public-sector costs, as our government did in the old days, they’re defending public servants in the strongest terms, to audiences that might once have called for cutbacks. Notley’s December 7, 2017, speech to the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce described Alberta’s public-sector workers as “the best in the country” and also “some of your best customers.” The speech asserted the value of unionized public servants in a diverse economy. It received a standing ovation from a business audience. That’s a significant shift.

While Alberta might not yet be “Rachel’s World,” the government’s efforts to create a more constructive relationship with public-sector workers is one important step in leaving “Ralph’s World” behind.

Harry Vandervlist is a long-time contributor to Alberta Views. He teaches English and Canadian literature at the U of C.


The Year of Bargaining Diplomatically

Last year the government of Alberta faced a mountain of public-sector contract negotiations. A whole mountain range, actually. Collective agreements covering roughly 180,000 employees expired: over 40,000 members in the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA); over 30,000 nurses of the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA); some 19,000 paramedics, lab workers and ...