Canadian Manufacturing

Alta. unions edgy over potentially drastic spending cuts

Alberta premier Jim Prentice has said the budget and a long-term financial plan will be tabled next month



EDMONTON—Two union leaders say talks with the Alberta government about possible cuts are starting to look like a sham designed to give Premier Jim Prentice political cover.

Heather Smith of the United Nurses of Alberta and Elisabeth Ballermann of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta said they’ve had one meeting with civil servant Tim Grant, whom Prentice has put in charge of the talks.

Smith said she also met with Health Minister Stephen Mandel, but no new meetings are scheduled with anyone.

“The cynics might suggest … the meeting with Tim Grant and the meeting with Mandel are going to be in an effort to show that they consulted with the unions and did not make unilateral changes,” said Smith.

“That may be an attempt to suggest there has been bona fide consultations with the unions.”

Prentice has said public-sector unions must do their part in light of low oil prices, which have taken billions of dollars out of the provincial economy.

He’s called wages for teachers, nurses and other civil servants unsustainable and pointed out that the province is on the hook for $2.6 billion in salary increase over the next three years.

Neither the premier nor Finance Minister Robin Campbell have said what they are asking public-sector unions to do or whether there could be layoffs.

All but one union leader contacted said they’ve met once with Grant weeks ago and haven’t heard back since.

“I did anticipate a call from Prentice or someone else fairly soon,” said Guy Smith of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.

“The ball is in their court.”

The meetings were more to share information on the economic situation. All the leaders oppose reopening collective agreements.

Ballermann said she asked Grant about rollbacks but didn’t get a specific response.

“We have yet to have that clarified,” she said. “We did ask for clarification, and we’ve seen nothing.”

Gil McGowan, head of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said he pressed for specifics on what the government wants and was asked by one official whether he needed a proposal before offering solutions.

“I got the feeling that they weren’t really interested in hearing our concerns or considering our alternatives,” said McGowan. “Instead, they were probing us for cracks and weaknesses.”

Mark Ramsankar, head of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said the union didn’t explore specifics on wage cuts or layoffs with Grant. He remembers tight times under former premier Ralph Klein when teachers took wage cuts to avoid layoffs, then got laid off anyway.

“Teachers remember that carrot and stick,” he said. “(But) this isn’t carrot and stick. This is dog and pony show.”

Prentice told reporters Wednesday that substantive discussions are coming.

“We will sit down at the appropriate time with the union representatives and get into some of the specifics,” said Prentice.

“In the meantime (the unions) need to understand the significance of the problem that we are facing.”

Prentice has said the budget and a long-term financial plan will be tabled next month to get Alberta off the roller coaster of oil prices.

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