EDMONTON — The union representing Alberta's registered nurses is accusing the province of breach of faith and breach of contract after the government successfully sought a delay in the latest round of wage negotiations.
The United Nurses of Alberta says the province had no authority to intervene last week to get a labour arbitration hearing on wages extended past the legal deadline.
The nurses have been negotiating with their employer, Alberta Health Services, which is funded by the government but runs at arm's length to deliver front-line care.
Union spokesman David Harrigan said it has asked the Alberta Labour Relations Board to review the delay and to replace the arbitrator.
Harrigan said the government's intervention is troubling, not only in this instance, but also because it sends a disconcerting message on labour relations under new Premier Jason Kenney's United Conservative government.
"The message is clear: this government believes it doesn't have to follow the rules and it can break contracts," Harrigan said in an interview Tuesday.
"If we negotiate something in good faith and then the government just steps in and says, 'We're going to tear that up,' it makes people wonder why would we spend time and effort bargaining?"
Finance Minister Travis Toews confirmed that the province told Alberta Health Services to ask the arbitrator for an extension, which was granted on Friday.
Toews said it was a prudent move while a government-appointed independent panel looks for ways to save money to get the provincial budget back to balance.
"We simply think it's the responsible thing to do as we understand our economic realities in this province," said Toews.
Alberta has been filing multibillion-dollar budget deficits in recent years and Kenney has promised to get the books balanced during his four-year term.
The independent panel, announced last week and chaired by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, is to advise ways to help the province save money. The group is to report by Aug. 15.
MacKinnon has previously advocated cutting salaries as one way to get books in balance. Harrigan said the arbitration delay may be the first step in such a strategy by the Alberta government.
Toews said there's been no decision on cutting wages for nurses, but added: "We're keeping all options open at this point."
The talks involve a three-year contract that saw nurses take zero per cent pay increases in the first two years with the option to negotiate and go to arbitration in the third and final year.
Under the contract, the arbitration hearing was to take place before June 30. The arbitrator has moved it to an unspecified later date.
Christina Gray, labour critic for the Opposition NDP and a former labour minister, said unions agreed to wage freezes while the NDP was in government because trust had been built up as the province worked to reduce spending.
Gray said Toews's wage gambit suggests the province is willing to burn those bridges with unions.
"The government is playing a dangerous game when it disrespects workers," said Gray.
"The road the government is going down now leads to mistrust with front-line workers and possible job action."
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press