When the Alberta government passed Bill 32: The Restoring Balance in the Workplace Act in the summer of 2020, a number of observers noted the many ways in which it unfairly targeted unions and their members. My Parkland Institute report analyzing Bill 32, however, made it clear that changes like those in the Act have broader implications for the rights of ALL Albertans. The report, Tipping the Balance, concluded that the legislation represented an Americanization of labour relations in Alberta and that many provisions undermined rights protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
When the report was released in July 2021, regulations for a key provision in the bill — the dues opt-in requirements — had not yet been passed. Those regulations were released earlier this week, bringing greater clarity as to which activities are included in the opt-in.
To review, the opt-in provision requires unions to share with their members what percentage of the dues goes toward “core” activities, such as bargaining and grievance handling, and what goes to other, non-core activities. Members are allowed to decide if they wish to pay the share of dues going to those non-core activities. The bill defaults to an opt-out status, meaning members must actively decide to pay their full share of dues.
This provision has been widely criticized as an attempt to undermine unions and weaken their ability to engage in political debate. It is reflective of so-called “right-to-work” laws common in many U.S. states. Its purpose is to reduce the amount of revenue unions receive by allowing some members to pay only a portion of their dues. Lower revenue, in turn, leads to reduced activity around broader community issues and political concerns. The provision also requires unions to expend significant resources to reach out to members regarding the opt-in. In effect, it reduces unions’ ability to engage in democratic debate.
The bill labels activities such as charitable donations, funding of political organizations and money spent on “general social causes and issues” as non-core and thus subject to the opt-in. It also allows for additional activities to be listed in regulation.
The key clause in the regulation is section 3(2), which reads “an activity that does not directly benefit dues payers in the workplace is a prescribed activity for the purposes of section 26.1(1)(a)(iv) of the Act,” that section being the one listing non-core activities. The phrase “directly benefit dues payers in the workplace” is the key term in the regulation. The union will be required to justify how any activity meets this standard if it wants that activity to be exempt from the dues opt-in. How high that bar will be remains to be seen, but at first glance, the term appears to be highly problematic as it seems to strike at the heart of many union activities.
For example, a union campaigning for an increase in the minimum wage would be hard pressed to demonstrate how that would directly benefit their members, who likely make well above the minimum wage. A union might be able to make an argument that lobbying for stronger public health care or more education funding will directly benefit their members, but there is no certainty that this reasoning would be accepted by the Labour Relations Board, who is the arbiter of this provision. The regulation also labels dues to parent unions and labour centrals, such as the Alberta Federation of Labour, as non-core, unless the union can demonstrate that the money will be used for core functions. This provision threatens to undermine a key element of the Canadian labour movement.
The regulation does indicate that member education, lobbying, creating public awareness and related activities are all allowed IF they can show it directly benefits members in the workplace. It also permits new member recruitment, operation of hiring halls and administering collective agreements as permitted core activities. This is better than some had feared but it still remains a problematic bar to internal union activities.
Stated simply, the regulation furthers the government’s agenda to silence unions in the democratic arena and force them to stick to “bread-and-butter” issues of bargaining and managing grievances. This narrow definition of unionism runs contrary to the long history of the labour movement’s engagement with broader social issues. Advocating for all workers is a core aspect of a union’s purpose.
Ironically, the regulation adds a layer of red tape both for unions, by forcing them to obtain opt-ins, and employers, who will need to alter HR processes to accommodate multiple dues deduction calculations. For a government intent on reducing “red tape,” this is an odd way to create more regulations.
All Albertans should be concerned about these provisions because they are an attempt to tip the balance in political debate toward corporations. There are no equivalent restrictions on corporations’ political activity; they are free to spend money as they wish on their political causes. The end result of the provisions will mean fewer (or at least quieter) voices on behalf of Alberta workers and increased influence for corporations and employers. And that imbalance will have implications that extend far beyond labour relations.