PHOTOS: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and friend with unionized firefighters at last year’s Edmonton and District Labour Council Labour Day BBQ. Below: Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan at the same event, and Labour Minister Christina Gray.

Today is Labour Day, which in recent years has become a traditional season for attacks on the rights of working people, in particular their right to bargain collectively.

These most often take two forms:

The most common is publication of misleading analyses of the supposed harmful impacts of laws that protect working people’s rights, produced by market-fundamentalist think tanks and reprinted uncritically by mainstream media, often with accompanying news stories and supportive screeds by reliably conservative staff columnists.

Some of these will probably appear today in your local daily newspaper, assuming, of course, that it still has a Monday edition.

The second is in the form of calls by so-called conservative politicians – who are in fact neoliberal politicians, a term the meaning of which we can all now agree upon – for laws that restrict the rights of working people, especially their right to bargain collectively.

This is likely to be especially true in a year like the one we are now living through, in which here in Alberta various neoliberal politicians are competing to lead a conservative political party, in this case a United Conservative Party.

In the past, I have characterized this blitz of vilification of unions and the important work they do in society as a kind of 48-hour hate, truly Orwellian in the use of terminology meant to convey the perfect opposite of what the words mean on their face.

Still, as it happens, the news is not particularly bad in Alberta in 2017, owing to the presence of a New Democratic Party government in office, however tenuously.

As Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, wrote in a rare pro-labour opinion piece in the Edmonton Journal Saturday, recent changes to the Alberta Labour Code have made it “a little easier” for working people in this province “to exercise their constitutional right to join a union and bargain collectively with their employers.”

The emphasis should be on the words a little easier. Because the changes introduced into law by the government of Premier Rachel Notley three months ago are pretty tame, and do not go as far as they could to protect the fundamental right of working people to associate and bargain collectively.

Just the same, passage of the Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act at 2 a.m. on June 6 was significant, if only because it finally dragged Alberta labour law into the 20th Century – only 17 years into the 21st!

The act brought common practices in other provinces that have worked well for decades into use in Alberta, where labour-relations laws had come to be the most backward in the country under successive Progressive Conservative governments.

Changes brought forward by Labour Minister Christina Gray included introduction of first-collective-agreement compulsory arbitration, a mechanism for requiring employers to negotiate in good faith with newly unionized employees seeking a first contract, and 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.

The changes to legal protections provided by the province for non-union workers were more ambitions – which is not a defence of past Conservative governments, but recognition of how far behind the legal rights of non-union workers in Alberta had fallen.

These included an extra week of job protection for maternity leave, to 16 weeks, protected leave for parents to look after sick children, and new requirements to ensure employees are compensated when they work overtime.

Despite the dire predictions and screeches of protest from business owners’ collective organizations and conservative politicians, there was little in the bill that corporations and conservative parties aren’t already living with quite comfortably in most Canadian provinces.

As Mr. McGowan reminded us in his op-ed, “The people who light their hair on fire about unions are the same ones who said tax cuts for the rich would bring prosperity for everyone (instead, they brought rising inequality); that budget cuts could end recessions (instead, they ended up making them worse) and that de-regulation would strengthen the economy (instead, it brought us things like the global financial crisis of 2008).”

Elsewhere things are not so good. The march of “right to work” laws and other right-wing economic nostrums continues across the United States, while President Donald Trump enacts measures in the name of American workers that in reality are meant to help only American billionaires.

Here in Alberta, conservative politicians vow to deliver the same Trumpian policies if they return to power – including eliminating most or all of the baby steps toward mainstream labour laws taken by the NDP.

Well, that’s a topic for another day.

This morning at 11:30, trade unionists from throughout the Edmonton area will gather for the 28th year to serve burgers to anyone who needs a meal at Giovanni Caboto Park. The Edmonton and District Labour Council’s annual Labour Day BBQ, part of the union movement’s strong charitable tradition, is an activity that would be made illegal under the unconstitutional laws proposed by some conservatives.

Similar events will be happening in cities across Alberta and Canada.

Albertans can be proud we have taken small steps forward for all working people, including those without the benefit of a union to protect them. Come what may, we can protect those modest gains, at the ballot box, in the courts and in our workplaces.

We can be grateful too that Canada’s courts remain committed to the rights of working people, as for the most part does Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal federal government, even if UCP politicians in Alberta want to turn back the clock to the 19th Century.

So this Alberta Labour Day is different – we have something to celebrate. And that’s something to celebrate!

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  1. There is an inherent contradiction in Hayek’s theory as described in that “long read” you linked to, and it is that “… For the price system to function efficiently, markets must be free and competitive”. The less regulated a market is, the less competitive it becomes, as corporate actors work to reduce competition and create monopolies through such mechanisms as mergers & acquisitions, anti-competitive practices to drive competitors out of business, and dishonest marketing that limits the information available to the consumer, making purchases so uninformed that competition becomes fictitious.

    There is also a value judgement in this model, which asserts that an economy exists for its own sake, and not for the sake of the society and people it purports to serve. The neo-liberal agenda requires that people serve the economy, rather than that the economy serve the people, which is the socialist position. Sadly, this is an unpopular position to hold in today’s society, in which virtually all media outlets, even the Crown-owned one, hold to neo-liberal ideology. The only viable solution I can see, is for the left, with its labour movement allies funding it, to begin to compete in the marketplace of ideas on the neo-liberals’ own turf, by owning and operating media outlets of its own. This is unlikely to happen, as Canadian unions tend to be uncomfortable with the notion of becoming employers (beyond that of their own staff).

    1. “Capital grows in one place to a huge mass in a single hand, because it has in another place been lost by many,” someone famous once observed. The ultimate effect of this centralization of capital? “The Irish famine of 1846 killed more than 1,000,000 people, but it killed poor devils only. To the wealth of the country it did not the slightest damage.” Now that neoliberalism is rampant in the contemporary West, we are seeing this happen again before our eyes, especially in the failing United States, and in the Trumpian Canada our own conservatives hope to build. Sad! DJC

  2. When the Wildrose and PC parties began to commonly refer to union workers as “thugs”, it pretty much set the tone for the denigration of the entire labour movement by the new right-wing forces in Alberta.

    Electing a UCP government in 2019 will result in archaic Orwellian labour laws that punish working people and unduly benefit corporations. Enacting “Right-to-Work” labour laws, undermining the political and organizing activities of unions and the repealing of Bill 17 (Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act) will transport workers back to the 1950s. These draconian measures are solely designed to impede labour progress in Alberta.

    While workers are celebrating today, let’s not forget this other good news labour story from 2017 — the repealing of oppressive labour legislation imposed by Bill C-377 and Bill C-525 (introduced by the iron-fisted, anti-union Conservative government of Stephen Harper.) Rescinding those two regressive bills deserves high fives by unions and those workers protected by unionization.

  3. I have been fortunate to be in the top 2 percent of Canadian income earners for at least the past 20 or so years.

    What I have noticed most is that it is those that have the best, the most secure, and the most well paying jobs who rail against unions, medicare, drug care, what have you are the small minority who have the most. They don’t need it and they don’t think that they should pay for those less fortunate to have it.

    If it were not for unions many more people in the country would be working in unsafe conditions, for subsistence wages, and without access to universal health insurance or other Government programs. Our wage gaps would be larger than they are now, most especially the wage gaps between female employees and new immigrants.

    Sure, there are certainly unreasonable and poorly run unions. The same can certainly be said for some of the large companies that I have been associated with. Bottom line for me is that I am thankful for unions. They have increased the standard of living for many and brought about certain social changes that have benefited our population as a whole.

    I am a typical Conservative voter. But I get turned off big time by the union bashing, the silly socialism comments that some politicians in Alberta like to trade on. My read is that they trade on this because they have absolutely nothing concrete to offer to me as a voter. Their empty comments are devoid of policy and they insult my intelligence. I may be in the minority but this does not bother me in the least.

    1. Well expressed. We often hear the top 2 percent and even working people rail on about “how at one time unions were necessary but their time has passed. We’re now in the Modern Age and unions are obsolete.”

      I’ve been hearing that stuff since I got my first full time job in 1966.

      1. They may think that. But tell that to the former GE workers in Peterborough who have been suffering from the result of chemical contamination for years. If it were not for the union GE would have happily run away from this and the Ontario Gov’t would gladly turn a blind eye.

        Or here in Alberta where some well known franchise food outlet operators were taking advantage of temporary foreign workers by under paying them and overcharging them for housing. It boggles the mind to think that someone would attempt to cheat a minimum wage worker out his or her salary because he or she is a temporary foreign worker. But it happened and it is probably still happening to a certain extent. People like this need someone or some group to stand up for them because the Government usually won’t unless pressed hard by public opinion.

    2. Tom is right, Brett – well said. Non-union workers really don’t know how much of the employment standards they enjoy have come as a result of unions bringing them in for their members first.

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