Legislature pulls all-nighter to pass bargaining rights bill as unions prepare for court challenge
About 180,000 public sector workers in Alberta could lose some of their bargaining rights after the legislature held an all-night session to pass the contentious Bill 9, Public Sector Wage Arbitration Deferral Act.
Just before the stroke of midnight on Wednesday, Premier Jason Kenney could be seen in the legislature passing out ear plugs to members of his caucus, which the NDP opposition called an insult to workers impacted by the incoming legislation.
About seven hours later, just after 7 a.m. on Thursday morning, the bill — which will delay arbitration with public sector unions until after October 31 — was given third reading.
Now, unions say they are planning legal action.
Speaking to the bill at third reading, Kenney said he was busy creating a new political party and running a “vigorous” campaign, so he wasn’t aware of the state of collective bargaining agreements until the transition period after the election.
He said about a week into his new government, public officials with the treasury board and finance department told him the government does not have adequate information to enter into agreements with public sector workers.
“The advice we received was that we needed — to use an idiomatic phrase — hit the pause button on this arbitration until we could come to the table in good faith with all of the necessary requisite information,” Kenney said.
Kenney denied disrespecting the assembly as he rose to speak before 7 a.m.
“I’ve been respectfully listening to speeches here this evening for some 11 hours and last night for some seven hours — 18 of the last 24 hours this matter has been before the assembly,” Kenney said.
Around 11:30 p.m., while NDP MLA David Eggen was criticizing Section 5(c) of the bill, which the NDP contends could open the door to government-imposed contracts without negotiations and other violations of collective bargaining rights, Premier Kenney began handing out ear plugs to UCP MLAs.
“I would beg an answer from the members opposite, although I can see many of them are wearing bright pink ear plugs that their premier is handing out to all of them right now so many of them can’t hear what I’m saying right now,” Eggen said.
Kenney’s press secretary, Christine Myatt, said the earplugs were meant as a “light-hearted” attempt to drown out vitriol from the NDP.
“This was a harmless and light-hearted attempt to boost Government Caucus morale after being forced to listen to the NDP’s insults, lies and over-the-top rhetoric for hours on end,” the e-mailed statement read.
The NDP complained about the UCP’s use of closure motions during debate on Bill 9, saying the last time closure was used on three levels of debate was in 1990.
Kenney said the opposition levied “bone-chilling accusations” and were throwing around conspiracy theories.
Labour leaders expressed outrage at the bill’s passage.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan called the bill “illegal” in a statement Thursday because it breaks the province’s contract with the AFL mandating a date of arbitration.
“The arrogance and cocky disrespect shown by the Premier and his caucus was truly breath-taking,” McGowan said in a news release.
Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) president Guy Smith warned this is likely only the first attack on workers.
“While AUPE is now exploring its legal options, members around the province are mobilizing and organizing protests on the ground against Bill 9,” said Smith, adding that the UCP’s action has “lit a fuse.”