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Tipping the Balance

Bill 32, The Charter and the Americanization of Alberta’s Labour Relations System

In the summer of 2020 the Alberta government introduced Bill 32: Restoring Balance in Alberta’s Workplaces Act (2020). This 82-page omnibus bill proposed sweeping changes to a handful of employment-related and labour-related legislation. Some of the most significant amendments were to Alberta Labour Relations Code, the law that regulates union-employer relations in the province. Almost a year after its introduction, many aspects of Bill 32 continue to be poorly understood for a number of reasons.

One of those reasons is the public perception that the portions of Bill 32 dealing with labour relations only affect unions and their members. A minority of Albertans belong to unions and so the impression may be that the impacts of the bill do not touch most Albertans. However, an in-depth analysis suggests the bill’s potential consequences extend far beyond unions. Many of the bill’s provisions touch upon rights enjoyed by all working people and all Albertans generally. While unions may be the most directly impacted by the changes brought forth in Bill 32, its consequences will reverberate across many aspects of Alberta society. Further, the bill has the potential to profoundly impact the direction of Alberta’s economy.

This report examines Bill 32 with a focus on its broader implications for the rights of Albertans, the health of democratic debate in the province and potential economic consequences. Specifically, the report makes two arguments. First it argues Bill 32 undermines key charter of Rights and Freedoms protections not just for union members but potentially for a wide range of Albertans. Second, the report argues Bill 32 represents an Americanization of labour relations in the province, with significant negative consequences for inequality, economic growth and democratic participation.

Part One lays the groundwork for the report. An introduction to labour relations is provided. The similarities and key differences between U.S. and Canadian labour relations systems are laid out to orient the reader to the two jurisdictions. Part Two summarizes the key provisions in Bill 32, with a focus on the nine measures that will most impact Albertans: the removal of certification vote timelines; weakened penalties for employer violations; possible prevention of open periods; limitations to picket line activity; restrictions to secondary picketing; requiring unions to provide government-defined financial statements to all members; requiring unions to identify the portion of dues spent on political activities; mandating each union member opt-in to dues for political purposes; increased penalties against unions for violations. While some of these provisions may at first appear narrow and technical, they open up significant concerns regarding the ability of workers to express their charter-protected rights. Part Three examines the effects of Bill 32 on labour relations in the province. It finds that the bill makes it harder for workers to join a union if they wish by increasing opportunities for interference, makes union activities less effective through new restrictions, and imposes disproportionate new penalties against unions. It also examines how the bill may impact a series of charter-protected rights for all Albertans.

Specifically it finds Bill 32:
• Undermines workers’ right to free expression through restrictions on picket activity and secondary picketing
• Interferes with the internal operations of private organizations
• Shifts rules regarding membership dues to an American-style approach that elevates individual freedom of speech at the expense of effective freedom of association
• Politically targets voices opposed to the government’s agenda to undermine their ability to participate in democratic debate

Part Four examines similar anti-union measures taken in the U.S. and analyzes what their social, economic and political impact has been. These anti-union measures lead to:
• Lower unionization levels and more difficulty for workers trying to organize unions
• No net increase in economic growth
• Lower average wages
• Increased income inequality, in particular gender and racial pay gaps
• Lower democratic participation and a rightward shift in public policy
• Policies that cut funding for public services and undermine the quality of public services

The report concludes that Bill 32 moves Alberta’s labour relations environment closer to the U.S. model to the detriment of workers in the province. A number of its provisions are unprecedented in Canada and much more closely reflect U.S. law that is more tilted in favour of employers. The bill will undermine unions’ ability to represent their members, organize new members and engage in public debate. More importantly, the report concludes that Bill 32 impacts more than just unions and their members. The consequences of changes like those in Bill 32 ripple out to all corners of society.

All Albertans have a stake in the levels of inequality in our province. All Albertans are affected by the direction of our economic growth and what our labour market looks like. All Albertans benefit from quality public services. All Albertans should be concerned at the prospect of charter-protected rights being undermined. And all Albertans value and rely upon a healthy democracy where a multitude of voices can be
heard.

Jason Foster

Jason Foster is associate professor of Human Resources and Labour Relations at Athabasca University. He is author of Defying Expectations: The Case of UFCW Local 401 and co-author of Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces. His research interests include workplace injury, union renewal, labour and employment policy, and migrant workers in Canada.

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