Like boxers standing in the middle of the ring before a big fight, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and government union bosses are in a stare-down before the big battle of 2021: government employee contract negotiations.
For years, these negotiations were foregone conclusions. Premiers would talk tough and then cave.
Politicians weren’t betting with their own money and the headache caused by the fight was never worth it. That’s why there hasn’t been a government wage roll-back on a large scale since 1994.
That was a generation ago. One Edmonton-area MLA, Thomas Dang, wasn’t even born then.
Contract talks and political rhetoric have heated up since the government proposed a modest three per cent wage roll-back on the United Nurses of Alberta union.
It’s not a surprise to see nurses being put out in front of this battle. Given the pandemic, the public will be more sympathetic to nurses arguing for a contract pay hike than they would be for garden-variety bureaucrats.
The issue is: this first round will determine the rules for the entire bout.
Unions bosses know that any raise given to nurses now will set the pace for the government contract negotiations that follow. If nurses get a big raise, then the bureaucrats will all get one too.
This isn’t magical government money. It will be families and businesses that have struggled through the last five-plus years who will be left picking up the tab for these government pay hikes.
It’s hard to begrudge anyone for wanting a raise – who doesn’t want that?
But nurses already receive high wages and benefits.
They also earn high salaries. At the highest basic rate of $48.37 per hour, they’re paid the highest hourly rate in Canada (2018), according to data released to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation through a freedom of information request.
Contrast these benefits to what average working taxpayers are experiencing right now.
More Albertans are out of work. Average monthly unemployment in 2021 hit 9.4 per cent. That’s the second-highest provincial rate in Canada.
Albertans are also earning less. Between 2015 and 2021, wages and salaries fell by nine per cent.
The Alberta government has an $18-billion deficit and an overspending problem to grapple with. Alberta government data shows that we pay more for public services than other comparable provinces: $5,470 per capita.
That’s 13 per cent higher than in Ontario ($4,702 per person) and 16 per cent higher than in British Columbia ($4,834 per person).
The cost elephant in the room is government employees. For every dollar spent on government operations, more than half goes to employee pay and benefits.
So far, Kenney is talking tough, but his resolve will be tested, with unions preparing to fight back with public relations campaigns and even general strikes.
How will battered average working Albertans feel when they see strike lines of government employees who haven’t seen a real pay cut since former premier Ralph Klein was in charge? Kenney needs to remember those everyday folks.
As government union contract talks continue, let’s remember that these negotiations are not really about nurses’ salaries.
They’re about whether or not our government is going to cave to the loud union bosses or stand up for hardworking taxpayers who’ve taken it on the chin for five-plus years.
Soon, Alberta will have to grapple with how to pay back the $100-billion debt, and it’s not fair to ask families and businesses to foot a higher tax bill.
We need all government employees to help shoulder the Alberta burden.
Kevin Lacey is Alberta Director with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
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