EDMONTON -- The Alberta government is asking members of the province's largest union to take a pay cut in their next contract.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees says the province has proposed a one per cent wage decrease in the first year and a wage freeze in the following three years, one week after workers were awarded an increase by the same amount in arbitration under current agreements.

“This is an act of revenge, not a rational argument,” AUPE President Guy Smith said Friday in a statement online.

“An independent arbitrator ruled only last week that (these government) workers deserved a one per cent raise and that there was no economic justification to cut pay.

“Yet here we see the government punishing us for getting that minimal raise by seeking to take it away immediately.”

About 24,000 government staff, including sheriffs and social workers, administrative employees, support staff and conservation workers would be affected.

Their current contract expires at the end of March. The union is seeking wage increases of 2.5 per cent per year to keep pace with inflation, a prohibition of contracting out bargaining unit work and the continuation of the defined-benefit pension.

Negotiations with the province began on Thursday.

According to AUPE, the government is also looking for reductions to some overtime pay and premiums, to eliminate job-security provisions, and to make "it easier to contract out the work of AUPE members."

Finance Minister Travis Toews said hard choices would have to be made in a statement after the start of negotiations on Thursday.

“Holding the line on public sector compensation will ensure workers continue to receive competitive wages while showing needed respect to other Albertans who have seen their wages disappear or their jobs lost completely," Toews wrote.

"I have said many times that the need to align wages with other large provinces doesn’t diminish our respect for the exceptional work and dedication of public sector workers."

Smith responded: “It is clear that these proposals are not based on evidence or need, but on the government’s ideological commitment to attack us and the work we do."

After the one per cent boost was awarded to the union by the arbitrator Feb. 1, Toews said the government would have to find $35 million to save elsewhere and that the raises could result in job losses.

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley noted the arbitration award was the product of an independent assessment.

“The government's attempt to claw that back now goes around the independence and the fairness of the arbitration process.”

In November, the government sent a letter to the AUPE that said union jobs would be guaranteed until the end of March, but the government would use all options available to meet its priorities after that.

With files from The Canadian Press