UNA considers all options as it appeals latest Labour Relations Board ruling in wage-reopener arbitration

For immediate release

United Nurses of Alberta will immediately launch a court appeal of a technical decision issued Wednesday by the Alberta Labour Relations Board saying it does not have legal jurisdiction in a union application to quash an arbitrator’s ruling that arbitration of the wage reopener in UNA’s collective agreement with Alberta Heath Services can be delayed beyond the date the parties agreed to in the Collective Agreement.

The Board ruled yesterday UNA must apply to the courts to overturn the arbitrator’s original decision, which the union believes is a clear violation of the terms of its collective agreement with Alberta Health Services and therefore is beyond the powers of the arbitrator. 

UNA has also filed an appeal of the arbitrator’s original ruling with the court.

“We are filing with the courts immediately,” UNA Labour Relations Director David Harrigan said this morning. “Realistically, though, it’s unlikely this would be heard by a court for more than a year, making a mockery of attempts to uphold the terms of our legal contract.”

At this time, Harrigan said, resumption of arbitration of the wage reopener is still scheduled to go ahead on July 2 or 3 and 8. “However, we expect AHS will ask for further postponements and based on what’s happened up to now we would not be surprised if the aribitrator will agree to further postponements.”

“Given the blatant way the terms of our collective agreement and the Charter rights of nurses are being ignored, UNA members will now be reconsidering their union’s approach to negotiations,” Harrigan stated. 

“Our legal team is reviewing all legal options,” he said. Our leadership and membership will have to consider if other options will also be necessary.”

The ALRB heard UNA’s arguments in the expedited hearing on May 31, delivering its ruling late yesterday. 

AHS bargaining representatives informed UNA and arbitrator David Jones on May 15 they had been instructed by the provincial government to put the arbitration on hold. Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews confirmed the same day that it was the government’s intent to do so.

Harrigan said the behaviour of the Alberta government appears to be part of a broader pattern by provincial governments, primarily led by Conservatives, across  Canada to attack public sector employees by pretending to consult “and then legislate salary reductions, freezes or limits on increases, rather than negotiating or arbitrating.”

“This has happened in Nova Scotia, Manitoba and most recently, this week, in Ontario. We believe this is a violation of the Charter, but it still takes years to fight it in the courts.”

“Our collective agreement had three years at zero, zero and a wage reopener,” he said. “We knew very well there was going to be an election and there could be a new government, so we worded the wage reopener language very precisely with specific dates.”

“This was done so that a new government would not have time to interfere in bargaining. Our collective agreement said we would start bargaining on Feb. 15 and if no agreement was reached by March 31 the issue would advance to arbitration. The arbitration had to be held no later than June 30, 2019. The parties agreed the hearing would take place on May 13 and 17, 2019. Shortly before the hearing, however, AHS contacted UNA and indicated they had been directed by the government to request that the hearing be postponed, as ‘the government wanted to consult and there may be intervention.’”

UNA declined to postpone, Harrigan said. “The government stated it wants the recommendations of its ‘Blue-Ribbon panel’ to be considered. The chair of the blue ribbon panel last year issued a report recommending ‘consultations’ with unions followed by legislation effecting rollbacks to salary. After UNA did not agree to the delay, AHS requested a conference call with the arbitrator. AHS asked the arbitrator to delay the hearing sine die (without a scheduled date). The arbitrator agreed to postpone the hearing. The arbitrator ruled the hearing was postponed beyond the June 30 date. He ruled the hearing would take place July, 2 or 3 and 8    but specifically ruled that either party may request further postponements.”

“Because this clearly amended our collective agreement, we filed at the LRB, requesting the arbitrator’s decision be quashed and the hearing take place before June 30,” Harrigan explained.

“The LRB agreed to an expedited hearing and on June 5 issued their decision. In a very technical ruling (Section 127 of the Code applies, rather than Section 145) the LRB ruled that they did not have legal jurisdiction and UNA would have to apply to the courts.”

A wage reopener allows only the wage portion of the agreement to be reopened for negotiation while all other parts of the contract remain in place.

UNA’s current agreement, which expires on March 31, 2020, is with Alberta Health Services, Covenant Health, Lamont Heath Care Centre and the Bethany Group (Camrose). UNA’s agreement states that in the event no agreement is reached in bargaining, an arbitration hearing into the wage reopener must be held no later than June 30, 2019.