Two weeks ago, Judge Denny Thomas of the Court of Queen's Bench issued an unusual injunction which delayed implementation of Bill 46, the Public Service Salary Restraint Act, which had been hurriedly passed in the Alberta Legislature last December.
This was the latest act in an ongoing drama of collective bargaining between the Alberta government and 22,000 provincial employees represented by the Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE).
The AUPE contract for these employees expired in March 2013. Collective bargaining started soon after, and some of the disputed contract issues were resolved.
However, a major sticking point was over annual salary increases. The stalled negotiations in May moved into a mediation process which was not successful. AUPE then requested compulsory third party arbitration as permitted in provincial legislation.
As both the government and unions reps moved together to put in place the arbitration panel, the government, without prior consultation, introduced Bill 46 in the Alberta Legislature, a law which would eliminate compulsory arbitration for these provincial workers, and force the union to accept the provincial government's contract terms, or failing that, have the previous 2011 contract extended for another four years.
In the 1970s, an earlier provincial government changed Alberta labour legislation so that provincial employees would be prohibited from going on strike.
The government minister of the day responsible for this legislation acknowledged that this was a serious issue with respect to human rights of workers, so he introduced the right to compulsory arbitration in situations of a breakdown in negotiations to maintain a basic fairness in the system.
In terms of Catholic social teaching (CST), these are important issues. For over 120 years, since the time of Pope Leo XIII, the central point of CST -on economic justice has been respect for the dignity of human work.
To remind us of the importance of this teaching, in 1955, Pope Pius XII instituted the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, to be celebrated each year on May 1, International Workers Day.
St. Joseph the Worker is the patron saint of the Edmonton Archdiocese. A special 100th anniversary icon of St. Joseph the Worker is now being displayed in parishes all across the archdiocese. This icon provides an opportunity for us to affirm the dignity of human work and to think about situations in our society today where this dignity is supported or diminished.
CST also emphasizes the right of workers to organize into labour unions.
The Canadian bishops, in their May 1, 1986 statement Supporting Labour Unions, said "labour unions have an essential role to play in preventing the violation of the dignity of human work, and serving as a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice."
Unions provide an effective means for workers to have a voice and to participate in decisions affecting their own lives in their workplaces. In order for this voice to be heard and for this participation to be effective, CST has supported the right to strike under proper conditions and within just limits.
In certain situations, such as the provision of essential services, governments may restrict the right to strike, but in the eyes of CST this is always an important issue, because this action poses serious risks to the basic human dignity associated with the work of employees, and removes safeguards to possible abuse of power by government or employers.
If legislated limits to the right to strike are seen as necessary to protect the common good, some form of alternate dispute resolution such as compulsory arbitration becomes an important priority.
Judge Thomas, in his ruling, picked up on this point. He observed that the provincial government had gutted the bargaining process by removing compulsory arbitration because it had removed the only effective leverage available to the workers.
The Catholic social teaching on human work is an important part of our Catholic engagement with the world. This teaching will mean little if it is left in isolation as a day on a liturgical calendar or even in an inspiring icon in our church sanctuary. Each of us needs to bring this message into our homes, communities, workplaces and legislatures.
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)