PHOTOS: Edmonton labour lawyer Andrew Sims and Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray at yesterday’s technical briefing on the NDP Government’s new labour legislation. (Photo: CBC) Below: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, and Alberta Liberal interim Leader David Swann and Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark, both of whom supported introduction of the bill despite opposition on first reading from the Conservative and Wildrose parties.

While legally very significant, from a technical point of view the comprehensive labour law reform introduced yesterday by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party Government is not particularly innovative or unusual.

Upon passage, Bill 17 will bring Alberta labour relations law as it pertains to unions into the late 20th Century and place it squarely in the middle of the Canadian legal mainstream.

If it seems wide-ranging, it is mainly because there is a lot to bring up to date – Alberta’s labour laws, which had come to be the most backward in the country through 44 years of Progressive Conservative rule, had barely been touched since 1988.

For non-union workplaces, the changes introduced to the Legislature yesterday by Labour Minister Christina Gray are a little more ambitious – with an emphasis on fairness for working people reflected in the title of the Bill, the Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act.

But there’s nothing much in the bill mandating changes to the Employment Standards Code, which governs non-union workplaces, and the Labour Relations Code, which sets the rules for unionized worksites, that corporations and conservative parties aren’t already living with quite comfortably in most Canadian provinces.

As Andrew Sims, the respected Edmonton labour lawyer and mediator hired by the government to lead its review of the Labour Code explained to media yesterday, “this is not a cutting-edge, lead-the-country reform. It is in most respects a bring-the-best-experiences-from-elsewhere to Alberta.”

Indeed, on the union relations front, in the face of more radical reform proposed by the government of Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, conservatives and corporations in Ontario are screaming to retain the very same late-20th Century approach to labour law the NDP bill brings to Alberta for the first time.

Politically, however, it is quite another story. As they struggle to find a way to purge the better angels of their natures and merge into a single far-right Frankenparty, Alberta’s two conservative Opposition parties seem to have picked the modest vision of this legislation as their hill to die on.

While they claim they don’t have a problem with the leave provisions proposed by the government for the Employment Standards Code, they nevertheless seem willing to risk appearing to fight for the right of employers to fire mothers whose children are afflicted with serious illnesses, to make minimum-wage gas station clerks pay for fuel stolen in gas-n-dash robberies, to block maternity leave for new moms, to make children do dangerous jobs, to pay disabled employees less than the minimum wage, or to deny leave to women suffering from domestic violence in order to satisfy their antipathy to the right of working people to bargain collectively!

Presumably they have concluded that insisting employers retain the right to refuse to negotiate in good faith with unionized workers seeking a first collective agreement will resonate positively with the “severely normal” Albertans Ralph Klein used to call Martha and Henry.

They certainly acted like it yesterday when the 17 Wildrose Party and PC MLAs in the Legislature voted against the bill on first reading – the symbolic introduction of a bill that is usually supported by all parties as a matter of routine and Parliamentary tradition.

The sole Liberal MLA in the Legislature, David Swann, and the only Alberta Party member, Greg Clark, voted with the government, and the bill passed first reading 44 to 17.

Opposition at this stage is unusual. It illustrates the antipathy for the legislation among Wildrosers and PCs alike – politicians and parties heavily influenced by anti-union employer cartels, business lobbyists and market fundamentalist think tanks.

This, of course, will not be the way these politicians try to sell their opposition to tried and true workplace fairness rules being introduced by the NDP – their rhetoric will be redolent with words like “freedom,” “employee rights” and “union thugs.”

They will try to portray as undemocratic a provision that means a secret-ballot vote will not be required if at least 65 per cent of the employees in a workplace verify their membership in a union. If between 40 and 65 per cent sign union cards, there must be a vote regardless.

Like the Harper government in the 2015 federal election, they will attempt to persuade voters the NDP is in the pocket of “Big Labour,” and promise their base that they will repeal every single NDP law if they manage to return to power.

As political commentator Dave Cournoyer pointed out, however, the Opposition parties have no alternative policies beyond changing nothing.

It remains to be seen if this is overreaching or a line that voters will swallow.

In the mean time, Wildrose and PC MLAs face a dilemma:

With an NDP majority in government, the only way they can make a dramatic fight of this is to try to stall passage of Bill 17 in the Legislature, ensuring their arguments against it in debate are reported by mainstream media, which in Alberta is reliably sympathetic to conservative ideas, no matter how bad.

They might even tempt the government to impose closure, which they could then try to cast as arrogant and undemocratic.

But if they do that, they can’t spend time at home in their ridings shoring up shaky support for their political amalgamation scheme with skeptical members of their own parties. If they are too successful, in other words, they could face trouble on another front.

While many labour activists will be disappointed that the Labour Relations Code changes didn’t go as far as they hoped, most must now admit that the best should not become the enemy of the good.

This legislation ensures the rule of law will finally come to workplaces in Alberta, and benefits working families in significant ways. Despite its shortcomings, these are huge and historic steps forward.

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  1. It is good to see that the Alberta party and Liberal party voted in favor of these changes. Personally I was hoping for more changes around hours of work in the Employment standards code.

  2. As a farmer I know very little about organized labour. All I can do is is tell you how bill 6 affected the way I operate my farm which is somewhat related. Before bill 6 I had 2 seasonal workers, 1 that is my cousin. My son and I discussed how we should move forward. We decide to buy a few pieces of more efficient equipment, streamline how we do things, work a few more hours a day. As it stands my son and I do most of the farming now with help from my daughters when needed and on occasion hire my cousin. We payed $22 hour for seasonal help so wage level wasn’t an issue. My point is that for business to survive and prosper you always have to look at your costs. The end result of bill 6 on my farm was 1 less payed employee. Government regulation can have unintended consequences. I think there was some positives in the new labour rules and there is also some negatives.

    1. Farmer B, all the protesters at the anti-Bill 6 rallies made it sound like they were already buying private insurance for their employees, rendering the WCB coverage mandated by Bill 6 redundant. Did you look into the cost of WCB vs private insurance?

    2. That’s not a negative. An employee losing his job because his employer doesn’t want to met the minimum safety regulations is a positive. The regulation is to prevent employees from being exploited by bad employers.

      1. Derek this certainly illustrates the urban-rural cultural divide. My Great Grandfather started farming in Alberta just up the road from where I live in 1906. I am able to farm today because those who came before me worked hard at building a successful multi-generational operation. Why would I put myself or my son and daughters at risk by running an operation that puts their health and safety at risk which is what you are accusing of doing. Your apparent belief that only the government can look after my personal welfare illustrates one aspect of why I don’t subscribe to left of center values.

        1. Of course the government has to step in because you aren’t looking after your employees. If one of them gets hurt on your farm they are out of luck. With WCB they are entitled to benefits if the get hurt. This isn’t a urban-rural divide, this is about protecting Albertans. You’re not protecting your employees so the government had to step in to ensure they are protected. Please explain to me how this illustrates the urban-rural divide?

  3. Jason Kenney used to talk about how, after he becomes premier, the summer of 2019 will be the summer of the repeal, as he repeals all of the legislation passed by the NDP. I am imagining the optics of repealing the laws David has listed above, as well as Bill 6 and the minimum wage legislation, for that matter.

    It was one thing for the PCs to fall back on their tried and true mantra that ‘now is not the time’ when they were lobbied to bring in some of these reforms, but it will be a very different situation when they start revoking rights people, including members of their own support base, have starting to enjoy. I am imagining how restaurant workers will feel towards their new You See Pee government when they have their wages rolled back, and are told they have to start paying for dine & dashes, or how an injured industrial farm worker will respond when he discovers he no longer has WCB coverage.

    I haven’t heard anything about the ‘Summer of the Repeal’ from Jason Kenney for awhile; I wonder if he has also realized how repealing some of the NDP’s legislation will look.

  4. No matter what the hard core traditional unionists say about the shortcomings of the bill, this is a huge step in remedying an enduring and painful injustice to non-unionized workers in Alberta. There are two more years left in the NDP mandate to put the laws completely right to satisfy the unionized shops. I expect them to do so.

    As for the conservative opposition parties, they deserve to be shamed for their reckless attempt to spin the Labour Relations Code amendments as dystopian. The really bad news for the rest of us is more unhinged whining and fear mongering by conservative naysayers and Postmedia scribes for another month… and that’s if we’re lucky.

  5. I suppose for the Wildrose and Conservatives supporting improvements to labour legislation, despite however sensible or moderate is a bit of an ideological issue for them. It definitely does not fit in with their right wing agenda. There might have been some support for something like this by moderate PC’s in the past, but their influence has waned and they seem to be leaving (or considering leaving) now that Kenney is the leader.

    The Wildrose and the PC’s are good at opposition – they seem to be against everything the government is doing, but I in the long run I don’t think this is what Albertans really want or expect from them. The official opposition is the “government in waiting”, so it is not sufficient just to say no to everything the government is doing. They need to have their put forth their own ideas about what they would do and how they would do it. It is not sufficient to say as Kenney did once when asked about his platform, that he would just repeal everything the NDP did.

    A bill which is similar to that of other jurisdictions in Canada and which gets the support of other opposition parties will probably seem reasonable to voters. If the Wildrose and PC’s go around claiming once again that the sky is falling due to this legislation, it may be they who start to appear unreasonable to voters. You can only cry wolf so many times before you begin to lose credibility and I also think they are making a mistake if they think Albertans want an extreme right wing government. A lot of Albertans work as employees and will appreciate some additional protection of their rights and benefits as employees.

    1. Yeah, I am still waiting for Jason Kenney to outline what he will do about climate change, other than repealing the carbon tax.

  6. Where’s the good in screwing over the post-secondary sector staff associations representing academics?

    Universities now have the power to refuse binding arbitration to settle wage and benefit disputes when negotiations break down. They can now also chose or threated to lock out their professors and instructors. How is that progress? Let’s wait to see which university will cancel classes because of a dispute. That’s no so good for students.

    The old legislation precluded strikes or lock outs, and imposed binding arbitration when collective bargaining broke down.

    This so-called “good” change has made things worse for everyone.

  7. It might not be you the legislation is targeting…. it is for the employer who has no problem placing his employees at risk…. therefore it is regulation not morals that guide those and the rest in society pick up the tab …,

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