Something for the NDP to think about: How about bringing Alberta’s labour laws into the 20th Century? (Never mind the 21st)

Posted on March 13, 2017, 1:12 am
9 mins

PHOTOS: Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray. Below: Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, Athabasca University Labour Studies Professor Bob Barnetson and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

The CBC says the province’s businesses are “spooked.”

The Chamber of Commerce is deeply worried by the prospect of “sweeping reforms.” Naturally, the Chamber also says they’re not necessary.

The National Post is so appalled it’s talking about changes that would make “the province the most radical left-wing environment for businesses in the Western world.”

The changes in question, the Post continued, hyperventilating, “would go a long way toward ensuring that no foreign business would ever again invest in it.”

We’re talking about labour law reform. Stuff, to quote the CBC story, like “mandatory sick pay, shifting the threshold for overtime, boosting the minimum paid vacation, advance scheduling, and making it easier to join a union.”

Talk about frightening the children! What next?

But if you’re a member of Alberta’s right-wing anger machine and you’re contemplating launching a brisk Tweet storm insulting Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley for instigating this outrage, hold your horses!

The premier in question whose government is thinking about these changes is named Kathleen Wynne. Her political affiliation is Liberal. And the province, of course, is Ontario.

Alberta is also thinking about modest labour law reforms, we’re told. Then again maybe not … wait a bit, say government officials, including elected New Democrats. Something will be along eventually.

But unlike Ontario, which in the next few days is expected to reveal its labour law reform plans in a public document called the Changing Workplaces Review, there are very few hints about what Alberta’s NDP Government actually plans to do, if anything.

When CBC Edmonton decided to publish a story last month suggesting Something Big Is About To Happen in Alberta, they got interviews with the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (Gil McGowan thought it’s about time we do something), an Athabasca University labour studies professor (Bob Barnetson said Alberta now has the most regressive labour laws in Canada), the Wildrose Opposition’s labour critic (Glenn van Dijken warned the backlash would be mighty, last year’s farm safety brouhaha all over again), and a Canadian Federation of Independent Business spokesperson (Amber Ruddy argued a recession is not the time to burden businesses with new regulations).

But the NDP’s Labour Minister? Christina Gray emailed the CBC a vague statement saying “Albertans deserve modern, fair and family-friendly workplaces.” Were there any details? Apparently not.

Indeed, it’s far from clear if the NDP has meaningful plans in this area at all, despite the fact Dr. Barnetson’s statement is unquestionably true – especially in that the province’s current Tory-era labour legislation completely lacks any meaningful way to compel anti-union employers to obey the law and negotiate in good faith with newly formed unions.

Ontario already has first-contract compulsory arbitration rules in its old legislation, to force companies disinclined to obey the law to do so. So do most other Canadian jurisdictions. Ontario enacted its mandatory arbitration law more than 30 years ago, in 1986.

So will the NDP enact even that sensible and nearly universal reform? We have no idea.

One thing’s a certainty, if they don’t and they aren’t re-elected, no future conservative government ever will – and it will tell anyone who comes asking, “You couldn’t even get that when your guys were in power.” Whereas if they do, never mind the bluster of some conservatives, the likelihood is the changes would remain in place no matter who forms future governments. Mandatory first-contract arbitration is standard Canadian operating procedure, after all, and likely to be supported by the courts.

Meanwhile, back in Ontario, the Liberals appear to be poised to take responsible steps toward a modern labour relations legislative framework that goes well beyond the modest policy changes being considered by the NDP.

In Ontario, the labour movement was divided over the idea of co-operating with Premier Wynne’s Liberals, which was seen as heresy in some staunchly NDP quarters, but supported by some major unions. For those that did support Ms. Wynne’s re-election, it’s hard to deny that it looks as if their strategy paid off.

This is something for Alberta’s NDP to think about in a province where progressive parties have been kept out of power for generations despite wide support for many of their policy ideas because there were splits on the left and not on the right.

Yes, Alberta’s NDP needs to avoid the mistake it made with its farm safety legislation and allow the Opposition to set the narrative and frame it as an anti-farm, pro-union law – it is neither. But they also need to bring labour law in this province it least into the 20th Century, even if they leave the 21st to Ontario’s Liberals. And they need to get over the too-cautious reaction to the farm-safety law, which clearly shook the party leadership when it was still figuring out how to wield power.

In other words, they ought not to forget who their supporters are, and they shouldn’t create an opportunity to their left for another progressive party, perhaps one with a new leader looking for a way out of the political wilderness and the same name as Ms. Wynne’s party.

As for opposition to labour law reform that takes into account the needs of real working people, including those stuck in the precarious globalized workplace of this neoliberal age, isn’t it interesting how the arguments made against labour law reform by the usual suspects are always the same, no matter what’s being proposed?

First, they call for more study. When that doesn’t work, they suggest the idea might have merit, but not right now when the economy’s so bad it can’t afford it or so good it doesn’t need it. Then they call the proposed change a dangerous left-wing ideological experiment. This claim is sure to be made even if it’s a call for a law that’s been working smoothly elsewhere in Canada for three decades.

And when even that doesn’t work, they claim it’ll kill jobs and end investment. Funnily enough, that never actually seems to happen.

C’mon, Alberta. Let’s act like we have an NDP government and get on with it! You know, like the Liberals in Ontario, who, despite bad polls and many flaws, might just get re-elected because of this.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

9 Comments to: Something for the NDP to think about: How about bringing Alberta’s labour laws into the 20th Century? (Never mind the 21st)

  1. Bob Raynard

    March 13th, 2017

    “They claim it will kill jobs and end investment”

    Yeah, the carbon tax sure did that. The streets are deserted because nobody can afford to drive anywhere, and the entire province is unemployed because of the job killing tax.

    Reply
    • Athabascan

      March 14th, 2017

      “They” always claim that any progressive legislation meant to improve the environment or society in general will, “kill jobs and investment.”

      You’d think North Americans would tire of such propaganda that’s sponsored by the billionaire class who equate paying their fair share of taxes with state sponsored theft.

      The rest of us 99 percenters need to wake up and demand that our governments act in the interest of the people instead of powerful lobby groups, billionaires, and corporations.

      Reply
  2. J.E. Molnar

    March 13th, 2017

    It’s always bothered me. When the rich deny the poor it’s called business. When the poor fight back it’s called greed. Do people not see the absurdity and unfairness in this arrangement?

    If there’s a parallel universe, it may well be Bob Rae’s NDP government in Ontario during the 90s. Public policy decisions that Rae made were detrimental to unions, along with campaign promises that were ignored. The Ontario situation was eerily similar to that of Alberta in 2017 in one respect. A rising debt and a recessionary economy forced Rae’s hand into abandoning and alienating union members in trying to come to grips with a burgeoning deficit. After four years, union members abandoned Rae in the subsequent election of 1995. Rae suffered a lack of union and public support for his “Social Contract” policy decisions that his government enacted to stabilize government spending. He paid dearly with an election loss in 1995 and never recovered as a “champion” of the working class; eventually he resigned from the NDP in 1998 and later joined the federal Liberal Party.

    Alberta’s NDP government needs to ensure they do not repeat Rae’s history and ignore labour laws and labour concerns that protect workers’ rights. The minimum wage hikes and farm safety legislation initiatives were an excellent start. Now the government needs to complete the trifecta with all-encompassing labour laws designed to embolden Alberta workers and bring labour laws into the 21st century.

    Reply
    • Athabascan

      March 14th, 2017

      Not to worry. The Notley government may call themselves NDP, but in reality they are far more centrist than Bob Rae’s NDP ever were.

      Rae’s failure was in large part due to his naïve belief that he could establish labour peace built on nothing else than mutual ideology with unions that represent workers.

      Ray forgot that he was the employer, and that by definition put him at odds with workers’ interests. That, is the reality of the employer-employee relationship.

      Reply
  3. Val

    March 13th, 2017

    sharp careless step in this matter in Alberta, a specially in present circumstances with high unemployment rate and glum perspective on significant change for better, can become a step, which could remove “progressives” from sign and mind of voters for another several decades?
    walk through mine field can be lethal. particularly given unpopularity some of the acts, NDP already did and which could cost them dearly in 2019.

    Reply
    • Pogo

      March 13th, 2017

      Well there val. What is the difference between right and wrong? Should people who live in Alberta just give up? What if oil prices never recover? What should they do then? According to you complaining about sane governance should suffice. I don’t think so! But then again bought and paid for by… https://youtu.be/bnouYT46z_8

      Reply
    • Athabascan

      March 14th, 2017

      Typical RWNJ rhetoric.

      We should all obediently and quietly wait until employers get together and decide when the best time is for workers get improvements in wages or other employment conditions. I know exactly when that is – NEVER!

      On the other hand, it’s always a good time for businesses to ask governments for taxpayer money or tax cuts though. Funny thing about that timing…

      Reply
    • Val

      March 14th, 2017

      looking into past two years and suspect it will ends up same way in plenty of messy stagnated rhetoric from all sides, including this blog. eventually if conservatives gain the power, they simply will rollback it or introduce own legislation, which would render ineffective all purposed changes.
      perhaps main problem with present government is too many good intends theoretically but so far next to nothing to be applicable with feasible positive outcome on practice.

      Reply
  4. Sassy

    March 13th, 2017

    Changes to employment standards in Alberta are absolutely essential. In 2015 and 2016, I heard of several non-retail, small to medium companies of 30 to 100 employees (still profitable, not suffering greatly from the downturn) that eliminated their already meager sick days to zero – yes, that is zero days. Employees must now take vacation time or unpaid leave when they are ill. Of course, these employees never had bereavement time off and they have only the stat holidays required by Alberta law (no time off on Boxing Day, Easter Monday, or Heritage Day). Annual vacation time is only two weeks until four years of employment when it rises to three weeks. The average Albertan will welcome any and all improvements to their work/life balance. Changes relating to unions, though important, are probably not on most employees’ radar, although I suspect modernization in that area will be the news the opposition and mainstream media broadcast. It will be tricky, but I agree with you David, the NDP government must make these changes now.

    Reply

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