Alberta reforms could mean fewer and weaker unions in UCP bid to 'silence' opposition

The bill coincides with plans by the United Conservative Party to remove limits on third party election spending.
Samuel Helguero The Post Millennial

It is being labelled as an aggressive suppression of critics by lawyers and experts in labour relations. The government’s own council’s take on the law has been preciously guarded from public scrutiny.

Bill 32, titled “Restoring Balance in Alberta’s Workplace Act,” puts restrictions on the spending of labour unions, limits their picketing practices, and allows union certification to be delayed. For all workers, it will permit reductions in overtime pay.

The United Conservative Party (UCP) positions the bill as a fulfillment of their election-time guarantee to “bring balance back to Alberta’s labour laws” and to “restore workplace democracy.” Bill 32 had its second reading adjourned July 20.

Under the UCP, unions in Alberta have been waging active public campaigns, research initiatives, and lawsuits against spending cuts or freezes, mass layoffs and changes to the labour code. Colin Feasby, a Managing Partner at a Calgary law firm, affiliated with neither party nor union, writes, in his constitutional study of Bill 32, that it is a “paradigmatic example” of legislative power being used to “silence or impair the efficacy of political opponents.”

The bill coincides with plans by the UCP to remove limits on third party election spending. Associations of large corporate donors that slant towards the UCP spent twice as much in advertising during Alberta’s 2019 election as big NDP leaning, largely union, groups. The limits on union spending and formation that this legislation introduces may add further imbalance.

Consulting for Bill 32

Consultations with unions for this string of reforms to the Labour Relations Code were carried out with the government in December. According to Unifor, unions were given short notice and had an hour to make their case. The UFCW attended but expressed similar concerns over a process that “looked like anything but real consultation.”

Employers and employer associations were also consulted. Their general responses were publicly logged by the UCP. Their opinions on picketing rights and union certification expressly diverged from those of unions and bear a close resemblance to provisions within Bill 32.  

The Post Millennial contacted the office of the Minister of Labour and Immigration and was informed that they could not provide the names of the companies that participated in the consultation.

In the bill’s drafting, the UCP received legal opinions from its lawyers. The government has refused to release these opinions. Emails on the matter secured through an access to information request were found to be heavily and unusually redacted.

The professional legal analyses that have emerged strongly suggest that the bill will be found to be in violation of the constitution’s section two protections of freedom of expression and assembly.

Letting employers “respond”

Bill 32 would remove timelines for union certification votes. Typically, once the Labour Relations Board approves a vote for unionization in a workplace, ballots must start rolling out within five business days. Bill 32 replaces this mandatory timeline for a vote that is held “as soon as possible.”

Submissions from businesses consulted for the law complain that they “have less time to respond to certification applications than unions have to prepare the applications” creating “hardship for employers.”

According to Philippe—a Unifor labour organizer who agreed to speak under the condition of anonymity—the bill could indeed lead to a lengthier process; endangering a successful vote for unionization.

Philippe’s job is to assist union drives in Alberta. He says that the time between workers’ application for certification and the vote itself (which happens afterwards) can already reach three to six weeks – all after several months of workers organizing support and signing membership cards for a union within their workplace.

“If employers have not already started, they kick into a high gear at this point. There’s mandatory meetings. HR comes down, starts talking with employees. They put forward their position to convince employees not to unionize.”

In Philippe's experience, workers often begin unionization efforts in response to poor or uneven working conditions, mistreatment, or bad hours. Although the benefits of unionizing for workers are well-studied in Canada, Philippe reports that bosses will often misrepresent what unionizing will entail to protect their bottom line.

Canadian research suggests that 60 percent of employers overtly oppose union drives. 20 percent resort to illegal action.

“A lot of people… they’re weary,” adds Philippe. “There are protections in the labour code and in a perfect world they would work. But, I always tell people, in a perfect world everything would be fine and you wouldn’t be calling me.”

Although the Labour Relations Board takes complaints of threats and intimidation by employers seriously, evidential burdens can require workers to testify, a choice many are unwilling to make.

Bill 32 builds upon earlier UCP legislation. Before the UCP took office, it was sufficient that 65 percent of workers sign a membership card or petition to unionize. The party brought in a mandatory accompanying vote that significantly extended the process for certification.

Similar legislation passed in Manitoba in 2016 tripled the number of failed union drives.

Crossing the picket line

Other provisions in Bill 32 restrict striking workers from “obstructing or impeding” a person from crossing a picket line.

Picket lines are often erected outside the workplace to prevent a company's normal flow of business following a bargaining impasse. Picket lines are typically crossed by replacement workers, informally known as “scabs,” and employers who want to maintain revenues without having to reach an agreement with striking employees.

“To break a bargaining impasse, the norm all across Canada is strike for a union, lockout for an employer,” explains Bob Barnetson, a professor of labour relations at Athabasca University. “The strategy of workers is, during a strike, to picket an employer, or allies of that employer to exert pressure such that an employer says it's better to come to an agreement.”

The UCP passed legislation in 2019 to allow companies to hire replacement workers during strikes. This practice was illegal in Alberta, and continues to be in BC and Quebec, because of the upper hand it gives to employers in negotiations by severing their reliance on their workforce.  

“An employer has their own way of getting workers to come to an agreement," notes Barnetson. "They stop paying them, they lock them out.”

Barnetson adds that bargaining impasses are rare in Alberta. Striking is usually a tool of last resort.

At the moment, electrical workers in BC are some of the only workers currently on strike in Canada. They are protesting increasingly dangerous working conditions and significant layoffs in 2019. In Alberta, grocery store workers at a subsidiary of Empire Co., voted yes to strike in late June after their $2 an hour wage increase was cut.

Other grocery workers are currently voting to strike in Newfoundland after Loblaw cut their pandemic pay. These cuts at Empire Co. and Loblaws were widely condemned. The industry’s profits were on the rise both before and during the pandemic.

In consultations with the government over Bill 32, businesses and business groups advocated for “stronger protections against picketing” and were of “opposing opinion on the issue” with unions.

The bill also prohibits secondary picketing unless permission is granted from the Labour Relations Board. Secondary picketing is the act of exerting pressure on employers by targeting “allies” such as popular suppliers of their products.

Managing union money

Bill 32 will require members of a labour union to opt-in to their union’s funding of “political activities and other causes.”  

The exact nature of “political activities and other causes” is left broad in the bill, but would include union funding for “general social causes or issues.”

An opt-in option would mean less money for unions to spend on these “political” activities. Workers looking to support a campaign would have to accept giving extra money to the union.  

At the moment, the money unions spend on public campaigns is collected with all other mandatory dues. In large Alberta unions like UFCW Local 401, the process for deciding what political causes to support is passed on to the rank and file members at meetings where votes and discussions are held on policy.

“It’s a democratic union,” comments Matthew Gilks, an oilsands worker in Kearl lakes and a leading member of Local 401. “So I have a meeting next week about Bill 1 and 32. We discuss what issues we find with it. Do we do letter writing campaigns, emails, do we get memes together? We pick the strategies we want to use, vote on it, and go from there.”

Alberta’s teachers union, the ATA, is a case study in the public campaigns unions engage in. In 2019, the UCP froze the budget for kindergarten to grade 12 education despite a substantial net increase in students. $428 million in grants were cut as well. These grants were only partially replaced by a one time grant of $128 million. On a smaller budget, the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) cut 300 teachers.

Recent cuts unique to Alberta during Canada’s COVID-19 response, meant the lay off of roughly 26,000 workers in education. At the CBE, between 600 and 800 support staff are not expected to return.

The ATA, which had a total membership of 51,390 in 2019, has been active in the media and has worked on disseminating public information about the effects of these cuts. They helped secure increased funding to reduce class sizes under the previous NDP government—funding that led to 2,900 additional teachers.

“Somebody needs to be a voice for the students, the teachers, and the community. If you limit this voice and what we can and cannot say, it becomes problematic,” Jason Schilling, president of the ATA remarked on Bill 32.  

Other unions like the AUPE, the UNA, the CUPE, and Alberta’s union coalition, the AFL, have joined the ATA in campaigning against budget cuts. In 2019, the UCP legislated spending freezes in the health and social service sector, continued wage freezes with plans to reduce wages between two and five percent, and gave notice that up to 6,000 public sector employees would be laid off. Union organizing helped lead to large protests in 2019 and 2020.

All of the unions listed above have released statements condemning Bill 32.

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Samuel Helguero
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