03/02/2015 04:12 EST | Updated 05/02/2015 05:59 EDT

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice looks to overhaul bargaining with civil servants

EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Jim Prentice announced Monday he will overhaul how the province bargains with public-sector workers and review legislation that prevents civil servants from striking.

Prentice says the patchwork system of past bargaining has left Alberta with "unsustainable" public-service wages that are among the highest in Canada.

"The need is to ensure some co-ordination, some discipline and some consistency of approach (to collective bargaining), which we have not had in Alberta to this point," Prentice told reporters after a lunchtime speech at a downtown hotel.

"The provincial government needs to be at the centre of this."

Prentice said a group chaired by senior civil servant Tim Grant will examine the best way to take a long-term approach to bargaining that matches the financial goals of the province and report back in four months.

The premier said the province will also review labour rules in light of the recent Supreme Court decision that struck down as unconstitutional a Saskatchewan law that prevented public-sector employees from striking.

He said a new dispute resolution will be based on essential services models already in place in other provinces.

The plan would allow unionized staff to strike and employers to order lockouts with the proviso that essential services continue operating during the disruption, Prentice added.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said in provinces such as British Columbia, placing all union bargaining under one umbrella group has led to politicization of the process.

"The reality is that (B.C. umbrella) council takes its marching orders from the premier's office," said McGowan. "It has led to what my counterpart in B.C. describes as a poisoning of the labour relations atmosphere."

Regarding changes to essential worker legislation, McGowan said the Supreme Court forced Prentice's hand, given that Alberta is the only jurisdiction that bans all provincial workers from striking.

"What we heard today from the premier is an acknowledgment that our (labour) laws are unconstitutional (and) they wouldn't withstand a charter challenge," said McGowan.

Prentice has promised fundamental changes in how Alberta spends and saves given the recent collapse in oil prices that he says is on track to take a $7-billion bite out of the treasury this year.

Prentice drew the ire of labour leaders again Monday when, in his speech, he singled out union wage payouts as one of the core causes of Alberta's red ink.

McGowan said public-sector wages are far behind increases in Alberta's private sector and he said the solution lies with the province charging fairer rates of taxation to correct the imbalance.

"The solution is not to demonize public-sector workers who provide these important services," said McGowan.

Guy Smith, head of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, said that while Prentice insists public-sector wage payouts will cost an additional $2.6 billion over the next three years, he has refused to show how that figure was calculated.

"It appears to be a political number cooked up for the sake of the premier and the finance minister's speeches," said Smith.