Alberta Politics
Alberta Labour Minister Jason Copping addresses yesterday’s “embargoed news conference” about the UCP’s plan to heap red tape on unions as “Red Tape Reduction Minister” Grant Hunter looks on approvingly (Photo: Screenshot of Alberta Government video).

Making Child Labour Great Again! Alberta’s new labour law breaks old ground while undermining unions

Posted on July 08, 2020, 1:54 am
10 mins

Alberta’s about to Make Child Labour Great Again!

If you think this is a breakthrough, you’re probably a fast-food franchise owner.

Cabinet’s “private sector union liaison,” MLA Searle Turton (Photo: Screenshot of Alberta Government video).

Yesterday, Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party introduced a bill called the Restoring Balance in Alberta’s Workplaces Act that is clearly intended to push labour relations in Alberta back toward the 19th Century.

High among Bill 32’s changes, which Labour Minister Jason Copping ludicrously tried to pass off as post-COVID-19 economic stimulus and red tape reduction, was a provision allowing 13 and 14 year olds to be put to work in jobs that even under past Progressive Conservative governments required a special permit.

“This economic crisis due to COVID-19 has been especially difficult for our youth, who are already struggling to find employment here in Alberta,” Mr. Copping piously read from his talking points during an “embargoed news conference” with mostly compliant mainstream reporters on the line yesterday morning.

Flanked with unintended irony by “Red Tape Reduction” Minister Grant Hunter and cabinet’s private-sector union liaison, MLA Searle Turton, the minister continued: “So as we work toward relaunching the economy, the proposed changes will help youth find work by expanding the types of jobs 13 and 14 year olds are allowed to do without first needing a permit.

“These are just some of the ways flexible rules around employment standards will help the business recovery and help Albertans return to work so they can take care of themselves and their families,” Mr. Copping’s talking point concluded. Great news, I guess, if you’re a 13-year-old who heads their own household.

Mr. Copping, fumbling his lines like a man who knew in his heart this was disingenuous claptrap, didn’t do nearly as well responding to questions.

For example, one reporter asked: Won’t this put children at risk?

“Generally speaking,” Mr. Copping haltingly explained, it’ll just be “light office work, light janitorial work, and the hospitality industry, primarily.” Oh, OK, then, nothing hot or sharp in a restaurant kitchen!

Former PC MLA Robin Campbell, professional defender of “Alberta’s ethical coal” (Photo: David Climenhaga).

And why so restrictive, one wonders. Don’t 11- and 12-year-olds need work too? Especially if they’re tall!

Won’t those new coal mines that will be creating Alberta’s jobs of the future need strong young workers too? I kid you not, I actually heard former PC MLA Robin Campbell, now president of the Coal Association of Canada, talking about “Alberta’s ethical coal” on the radio yesterday!

No need for rules, Mr. Copping continued, the government can trust employers to do the right thing. Plus, “we fully expect parents to be involved with their kids in terms of, you know, where are they working and what they can do. So, you know, we’ll be able to manage it that way, through inspections and through complaints. …”

This would be funny were it not setting the stage for tragedy. If you’re a parent and your 13-year-old gets a job next summer, you’d damn well better question her closely about what she’ll be doing, what kind of equipment she’ll be expected to operate, and what kind of safety training she gets.

Don’t expect her union to be able to speak up for her because this legislation is principally designed to ensure she doesn’t have one or, if by some miracle she does, it’s unable to do its job effectively.

In other words, Bill 32 has absolutely nothing to do with restoring balance in Alberta’s workplaces, which thanks to timid labour law reforms enacted by the overly cautious NDP Government in 2017 that nudged the most regressive labour laws in Canada into the middle of the 20th Century, the balance in Alberta’s workplaces remains heavily tilted in favour of employers.

Rather, it’s a wholesale Cotton-Belt-style effort to hamstring unions with red tape and unconstitutional limits on their right to advocate for their members and their members’ rights to associate and speak freely, while allowing employers to conduct themselves as they please.

Litigators will be pricing retirement properties on Salt Spring Island because this constitutionally challenged law is going to make lawyers rich.

On Bill 32’s requirement union members should get a vote on whether their dues can be spent on “political causes” — undefined, of course, so I guess we’ll just have to wait for Mr. Kenney’s cabinet to make something up — Mr. Copping claimed “we are standing up for individual workers’ rights … by allowing workers to choose if they want to support a political campaign with their union dues.”

Consulting his talking points, he waxed indignant that “some national unions have used provincial workers’ dues to campaign against Albertans, their jobs, and against Alberta’s core industries and interests.”

“We will not stand for unions, such as Unifor, campaigning against the interests of Albertans in our core sectors, using money of hard working people who they represent in those very sectors without their explicit approval,” he said. It will be interesting to see what Unifor has to say about this.

Bill 32 will also make it illegal for a picket line to even slow down someone trying to cross, a provision that is bound to create picket line violence — although that may in fact be the government’s goal.

It would allow cabinet to set union dues — a plan with some interesting legal implications of its own, also certain to be challenged in court.

It attempts to ban secondary picketing — surely a restriction on Charter protected rights. Nevertheless, Mr. Copping assured a reporter, it will still be legal for union members to demonstrate at the Legislature or City Hall — at least until they’re declared to be “critical infrastructure.”

Additionally, it would require democratically elected unions to give members an annual financial report, which I personally don’t think is a bad idea. But since most do so anyway, it’s hardly needed except to advance the UCP’s false narrative about unions and pile on more red tape.

Oddly for a government that claims to be standing up for workers’ rights, a provision hidden in the bill would let the government strip employees of their opportunity to change unions or decertify. Currently that can happen during the “open period” near the end date of a collective agreement. Bill 32 allows employers and unions to cut deals that ensure there will be no open period, giving anti-democratic unions even more power than they have now.

The Christian Labour Association of Canada was the only union to endorse Bill 32.

Plus, of course, Bill 32 heaps red tape on unions. Challenged about this by a reporter, Mr. Copping actually gave a halfway forthright answer: “We’re making some changes which are policy changes which will increase to some regard some red tape, so this is a policy choice.”

Exactly right. It’s a policy choice to make it hard for unions to do their jobs, to ensure working people don’t have effective representation, and to make sure no one speaks for people without union representation in society. Even if they’re children.

24 Comments to: Making Child Labour Great Again! Alberta’s new labour law breaks old ground while undermining unions

  1. Doug Brown

    July 8th, 2020

    All great moves. AB still needs to:
    -separate professional associations from unions. The purpose of a professional association is to establish minimum standards of qualification within that profession. The purpose of a union is collusion to manage supply so as to extort higher levels of compensation. These objectives are in conflict and cannot be performed by the same organization. The likes of the ATA and AMA need to be split
    -union dues should not be tax deductible. If a non unionized employee were to hire a lawyer or mediator to negotiate with their employer, the fee would not be tax deductible. Why should should those represented by a union enjoy the privledge of a tax deduction?

    Reply
    • Simon Renouf

      July 8th, 2020

      Doug, your comment is mostly wrong, on both counts. The AMA is a separate entity from the docs’ regulatory body, the College of Physicians and Surgeons. While the ATA is a single entity my experience is that they have been pretty effective at separating the 2 functions, professional regulation and advocacy.

      Legal fees paid with the purpose of obtaining taxable income (for example in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit) are tax deductible in the year in which they are incurred.

      Reply
    • David

      July 8th, 2020

      Does a business get to deduct lawyers fees? Of course.

      So when a person is in a legal negotiation with an employer your saying, the employer can deduct their legal fees, but not the employee. Can you not see how biased that is.

      Reply
    • jerrymacgp

      July 8th, 2020

      Collective bargaining is a right protected by the Charter of Rights & Freedoms, as has been found by the Supreme Court of Canada. Its role is to counterbalance the otherwise untrammelled power of an employer over the workplace & the workforce, which protects workers from abuse & from economic exploitation. Unions, by & large, promote labour peace & provide security for employers as well as employees.

      Reply
    • Kang

      July 8th, 2020

      Doug: “an employee hiring a lawyer or mediator?” Meanwhile here in the real world pretty much the whole economy is controlled by a handful of oligarchs, so good luck with that idea working. Doing away with unions and professional associations and having a government free the oligarchs from regulated social responsibility has been tried before in Italy in the 1930s. It really did not end well for the vast majority of people and it has left the country crippled by rancor ever since.
      Speaking of being free of regulated social responsibility, Alberta already did that with the oil and gas sector and the consequence is Ottawa is picking up the multi-billion dollar bill for cleaning up orphan oil and gas wells.

      Reply
  2. Expat Albertan

    July 8th, 2020

    It’ll be interesting to see how well this plays in Edmonton, given it’s greater union and worker representation relative to other Alberta cities. But then we probably already know, since Edmonton is where the NDP stronghold is. Time for Edmonton to “Edmexit’ from ‘Wexit’?

    Reply
  3. Bill Malcolm

    July 8th, 2020

    Shades of right-to-work states in the US. Pence was governor of Indiana and brought that euphemism in for local owners of dog-eared copies of Ayn Rand’s collected works, although I have no idea whether he brought in eased child labour laws at the same time.

    It’s like a return to the 19th century out there in there in what was once the Canadian province of Alberta. If a family cannot live on the two minimum wage jobs the parents hold, why, they can now send out their children to augment family income! Problem solved! It’s the Alberta Advantage 2020 — have more kids and live like a millionaire!

    “The Christian Labour Association of Canada was the only union to endorse Bill 32.” Well of course they were.

    A few days ago, I read the text of Frederick Douglass’s speech from July 5 1852 about the Meaning of July 4 to the African American. Masterfully written 170 years ago, that speech exposes the exact two-facedness of the United States and the acolyte Christian churches in the suppression of a race to slavery and how it was whitewashed and accepted into society, while the US touted its classlessness to the world. I’ve read no better explanation, because his logic is inescapable. And a must-read for all those who’d like to understand the mindset of the US Republican and hence Alberta conservatives like the UCP; they have expanded the denigration of blacks and First nations to all non-whites who must be denigrated. The speech was written just prior to the wholesale use of children from lower class white families in factories and mines and in home/factory garment sewing, but one has no difficulty in connecting the Republican/robber baron mentality illustrated by Douglass to the modern day neoliberal commerce class. Here’s Jason Kenney’s execrable mindset writ large. A must read:

    http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/55312.htm

    We have nothing whatsoever to thank the Republican Party for, nor indeed for the racist Woodrow Wilson the segregationist and others of his treacherous ilk. They’ve polluted our world beyond their borders too, where logic is presented upside down and backwards and issued as screed, with the churches as acolytes.

    Reply
  4. Abs

    July 8th, 2020

    I remember when employment rules for teenagers were tightened. It was after a teenaged boy was murdered while working alone at night at a Calgary gas station. So now it seems like a great idea?

    One thing’s for sure. The UCP is streaming kindergarteners into service industry jobs for a reason: so they can quit school at 13 and get to work, just like their great-great grandpappy did 100 years ago. Keep them barely literate, reduce wages for younguns, etc., etc. Soon, Jason Kenney will seem like an Oxford scholar for dropping out of college, if no one else is allowed to get so much as a high school education. However, the smart parents will put their money on another horse, not a dead pregnant wild mare. They’ll leave. Only the unfortunate souls will remain in Kenney’s sorry excuse for democracy. Welcome to the land of uneducated, functionally illiterate child wage slaves, competing for hard labour in gruesome conditions at the new coal mines. Charles Dickens could do some of his finest work with this. Alberta is well and truly Scrooged.

    Reply
    • David

      July 8th, 2020

      Agreed, Kenney markets our province to the world with low corporate taxes and then reduces rights for employees. Typical tyranny actions here. I challenge all labourers to go to a new province and refuse to work in Kenneys Alberta. VOTE with your wallet, because the politicians arent listening.

      Reply
  5. Athabascan

    July 8th, 2020

    Fascists hate unions. Right-wing governments hate unions. UCP hates unions. Ergo, the UCP are fascists.

    That includes labour minister Copping, who not so long ago assured Cargill employees their workplace was safe despite not having been inspected.

    Enjoy UCP fascism unfolding in plain view. Thank you Alberta for firing an honest, principled, competent woman, and replacing her with an inept, corrupt, and uneducated man who surrounds himself with equally inept and corrupt ministers. That’s just typical.

    Karma operates at the individual and collective level.

    Reply
    • Murphy

      July 10th, 2020

      Although your statement that the UCP are fascists is true, it is not a logically valid argument to say that because the UCP hates organized labour, and fascists hate organized labour, that UCP are thus fascists. Fascism and UCP wiring are both rigid and reactionary and run solely by the lymbic system, but one could hate organized labour and not necessarily be a fascist, as the good people of Catalonia found out lo these many turns gone.

      Reply
  6. Simon Renouf

    July 8th, 2020

    So the war on freedom of expression continues. This is the most recent comment from the Alberta Court of Appeal on picketing as protected activity (Alberta v. Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, [2014] A.J. No. 618) citing the Supreme Court of Canada’s leading decision on secondary picketing, RWDSU, Local 588 v. Pepsi-Cola Canada Beverages (West) Ltd, 2002 SCC 8:

    42 In the labour context, protected expression encompasses a wide range of activities. This Court has recognized that “the picket line itself is an expressive activity”: UFCW v. Alberta, 2012 ABCA 130 at para 62, 522 AR 197; 2013 SCC 62, [2013] 3 SCR 733. As McLachlin CJ and LeBel J stated in Pepsi-Cola, picketing includes a wide range of activities:

    30 […] Picketing represents a continuum of expressive activity. In the labour context it runs the gamut from workers walking peacefully back and forth on a sidewalk carrying placards and handing out leaflets to passers by, to rowdy crowds shaking fists, shouting slogans, and blocking the entrances of buildings. Beyond the traditional labour context, picketing extends to consumer boycotts and political demonstrations (see Daishowa Inc. v. Friends of the Lubicon (1998), 39 O.R. (3d) 620 (Ont. Ct. (Gen. Div.)). A picket line may signal labour strife. But it may equally serve as a physical demonstration of individual or group dissatisfaction on an issue.
    […]
    32 Picketing, however defined, always involves expressive action. As such, it engages one of the highest constitutional values: freedom of expression, enshrined in s. 2(b) of the Charter. This Court’s jurisprudence establishes that both primary and secondary picketing are forms of expression, even when associated with tortious acts: Dolphin Delivery, supra. […].
    33 Free expression is particularly critical in the labour context. As Cory J. observed for the Court in U.F.C.W., Local 1518 v. KMart Canada Ltd., [1999] 2 S.C.R. 1083, “[f]or employees, freedom of expression becomes not only an important but an essential component of labour relations” (para. 25). The values associated with free expression relate directly to one’s work. A person’s employment, and the conditions of their workplace, inform one’s identity, emotional health, and sense of self-worth: Reference Re Public Service Employee Relations Act (Alta.), [1987] 1 S.C.R. 313; KMart, supra.

    The Supreme Court decision in Pepsi-Cola expressly found secondary picketing to be protected speech.

    Reply
    • Just Me

      July 9th, 2020

      Notwithstanding Clause coming.

      Reply
  7. Simon Renouf

    July 8th, 2020

    And this is what the Supreme Court of Canada said (way back in 1991) about attempts to restrict what union dues can be spent on: “The limitation on appellant’s freedom of association is justified under s. 1 of the Charter. The state objectives in compelling the payment of union dues which can be used to assist causes unrelated to collective bargaining are to enable unions to participate in the broader political, economic and social debates in society, and to contribute to democracy in the workplace. These objectives are rationally connected to the means chosen to advance them, that is the requirement that all members of a unionized workplace contribute to union coffers without any guarantee as to how their contributions will be used. The minimal impairment test is also met. An opting-out formula could seriously undermine the unions’ financial base and the spirit of solidarity so important to the emotional and symbolic underpinnings of unionism. The alternative of having the government draw up guidelines as to what would be deemed valid union expenditures could give rise to the implication that union members are incapable of controlling their institutions. Given the difficulty of determining whether a particular cause is or is not related to the collective bargaining process, the courts should not involve themselves in drawing such lines on a case-by-case basis.”
    Lavigne v. Ontario Public Service Employees Union, [1991] 2 S.C.R. 211

    Reply
    • Just Me

      July 9th, 2020

      That Notwithstanding Clause is going to get a real workout.

      Reply
    • jerrymacgp

      July 9th, 2020

      Unions are democratic organizations, and their members govern what their leaders do with their dues. Does that mean each & every union member or duespayers agrees with them 100% of the time? Of course not … just as not every Canadian agrees with their government 100% of the time. Does that mean we get to hold back that portion of our income taxes that goes to programmes & services we don’t agree with — say, national defence for a pacifist, or meat plant inspections for a vegan? Yeah, just try doing that & see if you don’t get a visit from a genuine CRA investigator …

      This is undemocratic & anti-worker.

      Reply
  8. July 8th, 2020

    Very good article! I have been pondering why people were not putting together the lower minimum wage for minors, the intention to introduce k-12 vocational schools, and this new legislation allowing children as young as 13 to work at more kinds of jobs. I suppose, introduced separately, the UCP hoped no one would remember from one to the next.

    Last year, in the same bill that removed assurance of privacy from LGBTQ2+ youth wanting to join a GSA, the UCP raised the legal school leaving age from 16 to 17. I wonder if we will see that lowered to allow more children to take advantage of these new work opportunities, or if part of the vocational training offered at their new vocational charter schools will involve a period of unpaid apprenticeship…

    Reply
  9. Scotty on Denman

    July 8th, 2020

    Oh, d’at Krazy Kat Kenney and the Wetrogressive Conservative Party gov’mint, always smitten by Fignance, that industrious rodent who lays the bricks one-by-one, building with individual right the footings that found and clad the nabobs of bitumen capitalism. The more brickbats hit the K-Boy square in the cubicles, the more he lusts after Fignance and offers gift after unwanted gift, first one minister, then another and another.

    Can it be discernible through the halo of concussive satellites, hearts, stars and ringed planets the likelihood that lawyers enriched by constitutional challenges who spend their remunerations on Salt Spring property might join the well-established opposition there to supertankers full of Albertan diluted bitumen plying the busy inside waters of Burrard Inlet, the Salish Sea, Active pass and Strait of Juan de Fuca in which the insular playground of elites is situated, a fignancial brick thrown by an invisible hand clean over the Continental Divide?

    It would appear not. Queue the banjos.

    Reply
  10. Just Me

    July 8th, 2020

    Charles Dickens would get a kick out of UCP Alberta.

    Apparently, they learned nothing from his works.

    While the smoke screen of barring political donations without a membership opt-in is distracting enough, the reality is that restrictions on employers’ bad behaviour are being lifted wholesale. With the liabilities removed, it will be a free for all for all kinds of shenanigans.

    At this point, I would be completely in favour of the Right to Conceal and Carry firearms in all spaces in Alberta.

    After all, is it not true that if everyone is armed, polite behaviour is assured? Even the NRA agrees with this.

    Reply
  11. Reynold Reimer

    July 8th, 2020

    What’s the problem? Our ranchers can get in on the ground floor and breed pit ponies to accompany all the children to the new coal mines. Perhaps the ghost of Charles Dickens will make an appearance.

    Reply
  12. Just Me

    July 9th, 2020

    A moment of clarity…

    Jason Kenney is a single, childless, middle-aged man.

    He steers legislation that impairs the education and the labour rights of children.

    And he is determined — though somewhat thwarted — to diminish reproductive rights.

    I guess we can guess from here on and every initiative will attack children and women.

    Whoever said that personal matters do not impact on matters of policy stands corrected.

    Reply
    • Athabascan

      July 9th, 2020

      You left out that kenney is also girfriend-less. He always has been.

      Reply
  13. Bob Raynard

    July 9th, 2020

    How many of the front line workers, who two months ago we celebrated, will be hurt by this?

    Reply
  14. Murphy

    July 10th, 2020

    The damage was done almost forty years ago. Lamenting the state of labour, both organized and unorganized, in Alberta at this juncture is almost as disturbing as the John Frum petro-cultists with their Brick Tamland decals.
    “the rapid changeover of Alberta’s construction industry from 70-80% unionized projects during 1975-82 to a 5-10% coverage of projects by collective agreements commencing in 1984”
    https://www.jstor.org/stable/23073115?seq=1′ defer onload=’

    I was hospitalized for a broken leg at the time of the pipefitter strike in 1984, and woke up after surgery to see bomb squad officers scrambling around the Rockyview. I thought it was a drug-induced hallucination. My neighbour was involved in negotiations, on behalf of the ownership class in that particular conflict, and ended up beaten with baseball bats in his backyard. I don’t condone such behaviour, but it was a far cry from the sheep-like labour pool that exists today in Alberta.
    Long-recovered from his human pinata experience, he was still at it in 2014.
    http://www.cira-alberta.ca/docs/An%20Examination%20of%20Alberta%20Construction%20Collective%20Bargaining.pdf
    Always reassuring to know that oligarchs are able to use their wealth to help us with our lurnin’:
    “Roger Gunn is an Instructor of Labour Relations, Arbitration and Mediation at the JR Shaw
    School of Business at NAIT in Edmonton and is also a practicing labour arbitrator and workplace
    mediation in the province of Alberta”

    Reply

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