Don’t look for dramatic change to Alberta labour laws in revisions NDP will likely introduce this week

Posted on May 22, 2017, 2:03 am
6 mins

PHOTOS: Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray (Photo: Chris Schwarz, Government of Alberta). Below: Labour Lawyer Andrew Sims and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley (Photo: Dave Cournoyer, Wikimedia Commons.)

Alberta’s New Democratic Party Government is expected to introduce changes to the province’s main labour relations laws this week, quite possibly on Wednesday.

Naturally enough, right-wing politicians and special interest groups have been squawking about this since the process for changing the Alberta Labour Relations Code and the Employment Standards Code was announced by Labour Minister Christina Gray in mid-March.

Conservative politicians have been trying in their usual fashion to create the impression Premier Rachel Notley’s government is in the pocket of “Big Labour” – although, in Alberta’s case, it would probably be more accurate to say “Not-so-big Labour,” seeing as the percentage of unionized employees in this province is the lowest in Canada. Whether or not labour has much influence over the government remains an open question.

Lobbies for businesses that have benefitted for years from the absence of due process and fairness in Alberta labour law compared with other jurisdictions complain that “now is not the time” for change, the economy being in the state it is. Actually, the economy is improving considerably, thanks in significant part to the way Ms. Notley’s government has responded to the recession, so this line of argument is due to change any time now.

Still, the opponents of changing Alberta’s weak and unfair labour laws, whatever argument they happen to be using at the moment, do sound half-hearted about this. They’re just not getting their knickers in a twist the way they did over, say, the idea of a $15 minimum wage, which we are still on track to see in Alberta, or the loss of their easy access to temporary foreign workers.

I suspect this is because they have concluded the changes the NDP is likely to implement will be modest and not all that painful from their perspective.

They’ve barely even claimed the changes will kill jobs (there’s no evidence anywhere, ever, that this actually happens) or that fairer labour laws practiced elsewhere for decades are a dangerous left-wing experiment (although I expect we’ll hear that once the details are published, no matter how conservative the changes are).

While the Notley Government runs a remarkably tight ship and very little has leaked about what is likely to be in the legislation, it seems certain change here in Alberta will not be as sweeping as that contemplated by Ontario’s Liberal government.

I doubt we’ll see in Alberta, for example, a blanket ban on the use of replacement workers during strikes, let alone making it possible for employees of franchise operations to unionize or allowing domestic workers employed in private homes to join unions, all of which are on the table in Ontario.

Unsurprisingly, exactly the same arguments for keeping Ontario labour law the way it is now are being advanced by exactly the same groups arguing here that Alberta labour laws ought not to be made more like Ontario’s old ones.

We will likely see fairly technical changes to the Employment Standards Code, which sets minimum standards for employment relationships on non-union worksites. There will be a few more significant improvements to the Labour Relations Code, which has not been changed since the 1980s and governs working relationships in unionized worksites. But they will likely only bring it into line with labour legislation elsewhere in Canada.

The review of the Labour Relations Code was led by Andrew Sims, a respected labour lawyer and mediator, who is held in high regard by unions and employers alike.

Notwithstanding Alberta Progressive Conservative Leader Jason Kenney’s bluster about changing every law brought in by the NDP, this is just the kind of thing likely to be left alone by future governments of any stripe, in large part because the courts have already mandated many of the changes being contemplated by the NDP and because they work well elsewhere.

For example, I expect Alberta to include first-contract compulsory arbitration rules in its new legislation, to force companies to obey the law when they’re negotiating first collective agreements. Ontario has had the same rule under a variety of governments since the 1980s.

Perhaps we’ll also see a few meaningful penalties for employers who ignore their legal responsibility to bargain in good faith, or who deprive their non-union employees of their legal rights or the money they’re owed.

But don’t look for radical change, because you’re not likely to see it in the revisions the NDP brings forward – although this is sure to disillusion some of the New Democrats’ most ardent supporters.

7 Comments to: Don’t look for dramatic change to Alberta labour laws in revisions NDP will likely introduce this week

  1. Scott Crichton

    May 22nd, 2017

    It will be an interesting week ahead. Members of unions in the construction industry voted NDP hoping that there would be changes made to the Labour code. Unless the NDP changes the laws around Double-Breasting it will be difficult to convince those people to vote NDP again.

    Reply
  2. J.E. Molnar

    May 22nd, 2017

    It has always puzzled me how the conservative Frankenparties can insist they represent the interests of working stiffs, then deny basic labour rights (rights other across Canada enjoy) to the union and non-union constituents they represent. If anyone is in a pocket, it’s these neoliberals who worship at the altar of big business.

    Let’s all hope Climenhaga is wrong and the labour law changes are significant and dramatic to reflect modern working life in the New Alberta. Anything less would be perceived as a sellout to those who supported the NDP in 2015 and those that wish to do so again in 2019 and beyond.

    Reply
  3. Kang the barbarian

    May 22nd, 2017

    You often say some policy or the other of the AB NDP will disappoint the NDP’s “ardent supporters.” I suspect the disappointment is deeper and wider than that. The people of Alberta voted for a change to social-democratic policies (as advertised for decades by the NDP) and they are just getting tepid Conservative (or worse) instead.

    How many supporters can the NDP disappoint on how many files before there are none left? Could the Notley Cru possibly be thinking they are actually making enough new friends among the Cons they beat in the last election to win again? Shades of Nova Scotia! Happy Vicky Day.

    Reply
  4. jerrymacgp

    May 22nd, 2017

    One matter that puzzles me, is the issue around certification votes. I totally support first contract arbitration, among other modernizations to the Labour Code, but I still feel union certification should be by secret ballot, with voting supervised by the ALRB to prevent any shenanigans. I think organized labour’s preference for using signed cards as evidence for certification has poor optics and should not be accepted. Comments? Am I missing something?

    Reply
    • Steve Seager

      May 23rd, 2017

      It is by secret ballot. You need to reach a percentage of signed cards and then the ALRB authorizes a vote to which you need 50% plus one of the votes cast to either unionize or not. It’s not as easy to bring in a union as people think.

      Reply
  5. Andy M.

    May 22nd, 2017

    David’s piece sure reads like an effort to tamp down expectations. Still, he and I and others will appreciate the expected first contract compulsory arbitration rules.

    Reply
  6. Nik Ekonomakis

    May 22nd, 2017

    I sincerely hope they take a serious and heavy handed look at the labour code. Seeing how much has been sliced off since I even started working out of highschool has been staggering with how much has regressed. And the worst part is they barely enforce it so you see plenty of abuse. Joining a Union has been great for me but even in our recent collective bargaining we had Andrew Sims as our mediator and I’ll honestly say he definitely didn’t do us a service. It was massive strips off our backs as he tore away a lot of our hard fought rights for very little reasoning and worded in enough vagueness that many changes can be open to interpretation and a lot of “well I sure hope they don’t do that.”

    Double breasting is a huge one. As well as how collective bargining is being handled in this province as both are a detriment to all industries here. On either side of the fence.

    Also seeing how easy it is first hand and often for a variety of employers to simply skip Albertans and hire outside of the province first, or how it easy it is to have tfw’s when we have a large number of unemployed Albertans right here ready to work is something that needs to be seriously looked at. Especially in the case of tfw ‘s because I’ve seen the quick and dirty training where they are a liability to those around them.

    I’m sincerely hoping for a lot of big positive changes. Because we need them in this province, and something fierce.

    Reply

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