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Taking Aim at Unionized Workers

The Impacts of Bill 32 (Part 1)

By now most observers of Alberta politics have heard that Bill 32 takes direct aim at Alberta’s unions and unionized workers. They can be forgiven for not understanding the details, as much of the legislation is deeply embedded in the details of Canada’s labour relations system. It can be easy to think the law doesn’t apply to the average worker but it does. The bill also makes drastic changes to the Employment Standards Code, the law for non-union workers (which will be discussed in Part Two). But even the union amendments have the potential to affect all Albertans.

It is difficult to briefly summarize the bill as the changes are sweeping. The bill inserts new rules governing unions’ internal affairs, including restricting use of union dues, places new restrictions on picketing activity, and significantly re-aligns key elements of certification, collective bargaining, arbitration and strike/lock-out rules. It is, without question, the single biggest overhaul of labour relations in thirty years.

I classify the suite of amendments in two categories. First, there is the blatantly unconstitutional. These are sections that, given the current state of labour-related jurisprudence under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, will quickly be challenged by unions and very likely struck down as contravening Charter-protected rights. I put the following changes in this basket.

Bill 32 requires unions to indicate what percentage of union dues is allocated for “collective bargaining and representation of members” and for “political activities” (which includes support for charities, political parties or “general social causes or issues”). Unions will be required to receive active consent of each individual member to collect dues for political activities. In essence, members will have the right to not pay dues for non-servicing activities.  This section is unlikely to stand as the Supreme Court ruled years ago that union members do not have the right to opt out of union dues, except for religious purposes. This amendment is likely to be interpreted as undermining the ability of union members to exercise their right to associate.

The second unconstitutional amendments are the draconian restrictions on picketing activity. Picketers are prohibited from “obstructing or impeding” anyone from crossing a picket line and they must seek permission from the labour board to picket anywhere other than their place of employment (commonly called secondary picketing, a common tactic to place pressure on other actors in a dispute). Again, the courts have clearly indicated that picketing is a form of expression therefore protected by the Charter. They have also carefully balanced the rights of picketers with the prevention of physical violence. In both cases Bill 32 ignores the jurisprudence.

Why introduce restrictions that will mostly likely be quashed by the courts? To make a political point. The UCP government is stating very clearly that unions are its enemy and it will go to any length to make their life miserable. It plays well to their core voters, and it sends a signal to businesses with an anti-union animus that they have a friend in the UCP. It will take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars for unions to get the amendments overturned. 

The second category of amendments have a more insidious and potentially graver impact. Bill 32 makes a series of large changes to core components of the labour relations regime in Alberta, many of which are highly technical but make it harder for workers to organize a union and have that union be effective. For example, the bill eliminates timelines for certification votes; slower votes advantage the employer by giving them time to dissuade and intimidate workers. It removes the guarantee of an open period (the only time when workers can choose to switch unions) by allowing early agreements; this measure will benefit employer-dominated unions, such as CLAC, to prevent accountability to their members. It removes automatic certification as a potential penalty for an unfair labour practice; automatic certification is one of the few effective tools at preventing employer intimidation of workers during an organizing drive. It restricts the scope of decision-making for arbitrators and makes it easier for the labour board to overturn arbitration decisions; narrowing the scope of arbitrator’s authority provides an advantage to employers in disputes over collective agreement interpretation.

These changes may seem technical and legalistic, but don’t let their appearance fool you. These amendments are designed to make it harder to organize a union, more difficult to enforce a collective agreement, and almost impossible to hold employers accountable for unfair labour practices. These changes will seep through the labour relations system in Alberta for years to come, affecting hundreds of thousands of workers.

Bill 32 reveals the depths of the UCP government’s neo-liberal agenda. This government is not simply “open for business”, as Conservatives like to claim these days. It is signalling that it plans to implement a low-road strategy for the economy and labour market, which aims to create competitiveness through low wages, poor working conditions, weak environmental standards, and low corporate taxes. It is a strategy that bodes ill for Alberta working families. 

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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