Alberta public sector workers want big raises to match inflation

President of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, Guy Smith, stands amid striking workers outside Edmonton's Royal Alexandra Hospital during an illegal walkout. Labour watchers say there is the potential for widespread unrest and service disruption in Alberta in 2024 with so many public sector contracts expiring.  (David Bajer/CBC - image credit)

Alberta's government could be heading for a showdown on an unprecedented scale with public sector workers as the contracts of nearly 248,000 employees expire in 2024.

Registered nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, paramedics, hospital clerks and cleaners, Alberta government employees and workers at the province's two largest universities are among those with contracts expiring March 31, 2024.

And by Aug. 31, more than 51,000 education workers' contracts end.

"They're tired and they're frustrated," Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said in an interview Monday.

"They feel like this government hasn't respected them and they're not in the mood to accept agreements that don't keep up with inflation."

Gil McGowan is president of the Alberta Federation of Labour
Gil McGowan is president of the Alberta Federation of Labour

Gil McGowan is president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. (Manuel Carrillos/CBC)

McGowan said the United Conservative Party government's effort to see that public worker contracts end at around the same time could lead to overlapping strikes if bargaining fails.

Unions that have made, and shared, their opening offers are looking for substantial wage boosts.

The 30,000 United Nurses of Alberta members are seeking a 25 per cent wage increase, followed by a 10 per cent raise in a two-year contract.

About 20,000 health-care support workers in the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) have made a similar opening offer.

The 22,000 provincial government employees in AUPE are seeking a three-year-contract with a 13 per cent wage increase, then 6.5 per cent wage boosts for the next two years, plus cost-of-living adjustments to insulate workers against future inflation hikes.

The government's opening offer to all unions thus far has been a four-year contract with a two per cent raise in 2024, a two per cent raise in 2025, and 1.75 per cent raises in both 2026 and 2027.

McGowan said many of those workers have had minimal or no raises in the last decade. The opening offers look like the government is "sleepwalking into a massive strike," he said.

Although the unions' opening proposals sound large, Athabasca University associate professor of human resources and labour relations Jason Foster thinks they have good leverage.

Statistics Canada data show the consumer price index in Alberta rose 13.7 per cent between January 2021 and January 2024. The index reflects the rising price of shelter, food, transportation, utilities and other costs of living.

Foster said Alberta public sector workers' wages haven't kept pace with those rising costs.

Alberta, along with the rest of Canada, is also struggling with a shortage of skilled workers in health, education and social services.

Short staffing can lead to deteriorating working conditions, which can drive more people out of those professions.

Foster said with public sector workers in other provinces securing collective agreements with significant wage increases and incentives, Alberta will need to compete to hold onto its workers.

"It's going to be a very confrontational and difficult round of bargaining," Foster said. "I think it's not going to be pretty."

The unions also have sizeable war chests that could give workers the financial security to ride out a protracted strike, he said.

Gov't involvement in bargaining problematic: experts

Foster and fellow Athabasca University labour relations professor Bob Barnetson say another factor is likely to complicate bargaining.

In 2019, former Premier Jason Kenney's UCP government created the Public Sector Employers Act. It allows the finance minister to direct public employers, such as Alberta Health Services (AHS) and most post-secondary institutions, to set term limits and spending limits for collective agreements.

Teachers are excluded.

Foster and Barnetson are authors on a new Parkland Institute report that argues government's involvement in such bargaining is problematic.

They say employers must keep secret which terms are flexible and which are immutable government directives.

"Then we all go through this theatrical process of pretending to bargain until we get to whatever the bottom line is in the mandate," Barnetson said in an interview.

The government has signalled it has no plans to boost public spending.

Premier Danielle Smith said in a video address last week she plans to restrain costs below the rates of inflation and population growth to invest more money in the Heritage Savings Trust Fund.

At an unrelated news conference Tuesday, Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said health employers and nurses would negotiate until they reach "a happy medium" between their opening positions.

AHS has said the nurses' union's opening proposal would cost $1.6 billion.

Savannah Johannsen, press secretary to Finance Minister Nate Horner, did not answer a question about whether the minister had directed employers to give the same opening offer to three public sector unions. She said commenting on negotiations while they are underway would be inappropriate.

Government directives to employers are a "long-standing practice" to limit spending, Johannsen said. She said the labour relations board has found the directives don't alter the course of bargaining.

"Albertans rely on government for the efficient stewardship of public funds," she said in an email. "This means balancing the ability to invest in programs and services with fair and competitive compensation for workers."