Backstage

Poker at the end of a gun

Wayne Skene August 4 1980
Backstage

Poker at the end of a gun

Wayne Skene August 4 1980

Poker at the end of a gun

Backstage

Edmonton

Wayne Skene

Perhaps it was an omen for the Lougheed government. Media experience had established it; the LalondeLeitch round of preliminary confrontations confirmed it. Now Peter Lougheed’s own government was discovering it—that Alberta and its leaders were seen as tough and unyielding: the gunfighters of Canadian politics.

In the very week that the Alberta premier arrived in Ottawa to begin the historic oil-pricing poker game with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, an Alberta government public affairs report claiming the goverment had a bad image was leaked to the Edmonton Journal. The report said people were beginning to believe that the Lougheed government was cynical about the Opposition, complacent toward criticism and arrogant. More than 32,000 of Alberta’s public employees—members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE)—couldn’t have agreed more. As Lougheed squared off with Trudeau, an estimated 3,000 members of the AUPE, from jail guards to computer operators, had launched a wildcat strike over the government’s tough wage guidelines and the provincial law that denies public servants the right to strike—in effect, making all provincial employees essential for the smooth operation of the province. The walkout began simply enough when 186 liquor-board workers hit the bricks after wage talks broke down. But it gained speed when 1,000 guards from nine provincial jails, health-care workers, law courts staff and computer operators also went out, so the Lougheed team moved into action. RCMP officers replaced the jail guards, who were seeking increases of $400 a month—parity with their B.C. counterparts. Personnel Minister Greg Stevens let it be known that if the guards didn’t return quickly to the bargaining table they could find themselves sitting in their own jails. “Political bullshit,” retorted AUPE spokesman Bill Finn. “Scare tactics and sabre-rattling.” Stevens moved to binding arbitration and then received court injunctions ordering the illegal picketers back to work. When the court orders were disobeyed, six of the guards were selected, found guilty of civil contempt of court and fined $1,000 each.

After three weeks of illegal walkouts, media haranguing and courtroom dramatics, the two central issues—the stiff wage guidelines and the right to strike—remained untouched. “There has been absolutely no talk [in cabinet] of changing the act,” Stevens maintained. “It is the law.” On the other hand, the elimination of the guidelines, not entirely unlike a royal pardon, is still a matter of cabinet agreement. The wage guidelines of six to seven per cent were originally established in 1978, when wage settlements averaged 6.4 per cent a year, inflation nine per cent and

corporate profits 27.4 per cent. The guidelines were in keeping with Lougheed’s belief that “control of the public sector wage was the key to budget restraint and spending by all levels of government.” Less than a year later, the Lougheed government voted itself a 47-per-cent increase in salary. “And they call us irresponsible in our demands,” cried Bill Finn. In defence of the 47-per-cent hike, provincial Treasurer Lou Hyndman maintained that comparing MLAs’ salaries to public servants’ wages was like comparing apples and oranges—an Alberta version of “let them eat cake,” as one union official put it. For this latest round of

negotiations with the AUPE, government wage guidelines have been revised to between 7.5 and nine per cent.

But the real thorn in the AUPE paw has been the tough Public Service Employee Relations Act, forbidding public employees from striking. In 1977 the Canadian Labour Congress filed a complaint with the International Labour Organization over the act. The ILO censured the government and asked it to restrict the act to only those employees involved in essential services, “in the strictest sense.” AUPE lawyers tried to contest the consti% tutionality of the act before 2 Chief Justice William Sinclair, 5 hoping the courts would find * that the act violates international labor conventions ratified by the Canadian government. Justice Sinclair ruled last week that the act did not, in fact, violate any international convention.

With a 74-out-of-79-seat majority in the legislature, the Lougheed government knows it can afford to act tough with its public employees. But the public relations fallout may be severe, since the government continues to rack up annual budgetary surpluses, diverts almost one-third of its oil and gas income into its Heritage Trust Fund and allocates $75 million for artificial waterfalls, homecoming teams and painted Easter eggs in celebration of the province’s 75th birthday party.

The fact is that 42 per cent of the province’s employees earn less than $14,000 a year, a figure below the province’s own poverty line for a family of four. Some of the province’s employees are the lowest-paid provincial workers west of Quebec. But the threatening spectre of “excessive” publicsector wage increases remains well subdued. Enthusiastic talk of a province-wide walkout by AUPE’s 32,000 provincial employees has been silenced by the $1,000 fines. At week’s end, beleaguered union officials asked striking clerical workers to go back to work, a sign that renewed negotiations may not be far behind. In Alberta collective bargaining, as in poker, the fellow with the chips can pretty much raise the stakes until everyone has to drop out of the game.

Wayne Skene is Maclean ’s correspondent in Edmonton.