EDMONTON - The Redford government set the stage for tough bargaining this month by allowing for no provision for pay increases in Thursday’s budget.
“There’s no mood among our membership to just lay down,” said Guy Smith, head of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. “It’s going to be very difficult negotiations.”
The budget’s hard line applies to teachers, nurses, health sciences workers and civil servants. Many are in bargaining or about to start this spring.
Smith, who said he was disappointed at the government’s stand, warned that the lack of any wage increase will result in the continued loss of front-line workers to the private sector where wages are higher. That in turn will make it harder to provide services to the growing population, he stressed.
The budget also revealed about 80 civil service positions will be lost with more job cuts likely as the Redford government continues to reorganize departments.
Finance Minister Doug Horner said public service unions should not be surprised that the province did not allow for any salary increase. The government has warned for some months that salaries for teachers, doctors and nurses here are higher than elsewhere, he said.
Given the shortfall of energy revenue, the government is freezing its spending to get its fiscal house in order, he said.
“I don’t know how I could have been more clear in saying there is no new money built into the budget for salaries,’ said Horner.
“We took the lead earlier this spring” by announcing a three-year wage freeze for all civil service managers and plans to cut 480 jobs, about 10 per cent of management ranks, over next three years, said Horner.
“When you look at comparative numbers from across Canada on a market-based perspective, we have the highest paid teachers and highest paid doctors in the country.
“This is somewhat of a reset for us to get us back to reasonable levels of expenditures.”
Budget officials announced 30 full-time positions cut in Alberta Agriculture and 51 in education with more job losses to come, though not specified in budget documents.
“I won’t say there won’t be losses in the civil service because we are making changes in how we do things,” said Horner. “We will try to be as compassionate as possible, but where you lose a program, you may be losing some people.”
Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the wage freeze in this wealthy province is an “unnecessary provocation to public sector unions.”
“Public sector unions would consider restraint if there was a recession or if government spending was really out of control. But neither of those things is happening. The economy is growing,” said McGowan.
The government refused to address its over-reliance on oil royalties in this budget and as a result public servants face restraint, he said.
“The Alberta government has pissed away another energy boom and Albertans will pay for this with cuts in service,” he said.
The environment department, for instance, got a $22 million budget cut and is reorganizing after joining with
sustainable resource development. That reorganization is still ongoing.
The ripple effect of the tight budget may also be felt in post-secondary institutions where provincial funding was cut slightly. Universities have said a funding freeze is equivalent to a four-per-cent cut and may impact teaching staff and programs. Teachers, nurses and other health workers warned the government they would not be stampeded into accepting wage concessions or job cuts as they were in the Klein era.
Alberta teachers have been in negotiations for about two years trying to get a provincewide deal but that those talks broke off last month. Bargaining has resumed with local school boards.
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