Alberta’s governing party, the United Conservative Party (UCP), led by Jason Kenney, is attempting to tilt the scales of workplace relations in favor of employers. A central plank of this push is the deceptively titled Restoring Balance in the Workplace Act, or Bill 32.
The UCP’s rationale, as articulated by Labour minister Jason Copping, is that the previous, social-democratic NDP government tipped the balance of power toward organized labor. Of course, labor relations are always slanted in favor of employers under a capitalist system, and Alberta was no exception. But the NDP did carry out some modest reforms, which began the process of bringing Alberta up to speed with the rest of Canada.
These reforms included codifying employees’ right to refuse unsafe work, requiring overtime pay to be at time-and-a-half, making unionization easier through the card check system, and mandating Workplace Compensation Board coverage for farmworkers injured on the job.
These measures sought to limit the degree to which employees can be exploited by their bosses, creating bare minimum standards largely in line with the rest of the country. These measures may have been nothing radical, but they were a step in the right direction.
Pulling up the Bridge
For Premier Jason Kenney’s government, however, this was all a bridge too far. In the minds of the UCP leaders, with their harsh, authoritarian vision of what the workplace should be, employers must be given free rein over their workers to do as they see fit. If bosses want to refuse overtime pay, employ thirteen- or fourteen-year-olds, or crush a union drive, that is their prerogative.
Having rammed through the bill, the UCP is now reviewing other workplace regulations. For an encore, they may allow bosses to force their employees into unsafe work or deny coverage for workers’ compensation.
Strangely, Bill 32 also requires unions to file extra paperwork to demonstrate where their dues are going, which is an odd request from a government that created the position of associate minister for red-tape reduction.
For those workers fortunate enough to have a union, Bill 32 places restrictions on their ability to picket during a strike. It also uses an arbitrary definition of “political activity” to starve them of funds. Make no mistake, Bill 32 is a deliberate and brutal attack on organized labor.
“Political Activity” Is for Us, Not for You
The government has decided that anything unions do outside of collective bargaining is out-of-bounds political activity, to which workers will have to explicitly opt in. This includes charities and nongovernmental organizations, organizations or groups affiliated with a political party, social causes or issues, and anything else the government deems beyond the pale.
It should go without saying that unions are inherently political. They don’t exist solely in individual workplaces — they are part of a larger project dedicated to reducing the harms workers endure in the capitalist labor market. And if members don’t like the way they’re being represented, they have the ability to get involved and elect new leadership, unlike, say, nonunion workplaces, where workers have no democratic means of removing management they dislike.
Labor lawyer Joshua Mandryk told Rank & File Radio – Prairie Edition that this legislation is part of a piecemeal assault on the Rand Formula. Dating back to an arbitration decision by Canadian Supreme Court justice Ivan Rand in 1946, the formula stipulates that unionized workers must pay union dues, regardless of their level of involvement, since they ultimately benefit from the union’s obligation to provide fair representation, as well as any gains made during collective bargaining.
“At the core, the dividing line between collective bargaining activities of unions and the so-called ‘political activities’ of unions is a complete fiction,” Mandryk said. “Especially nowadays, but always throughout history, what unions are able to achieve and defend for their members is impacted by larger social and political issues and it’s not restricted to the bargaining table.”
He cites universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, and unemployment insurance as “obvious examples” of major victories that were the result of labor agitation. As a result, in Canada, these issues were removed from the bargaining table, allowing unions to focus their energies on other issues affecting their membership.
Cutting Unions off at the Knees
Another major component of Bill 32 places restrictions on striking workers’ ability to picket, forbidding them from blocking entrances to their workplace. It also prohibits secondary picketing without approval from the Labour Relations Board. This means, of course, that unions must take the time to apply to the Labour Relations Board before taking part in secondary picketing. (Secondary picketing involves taking action at an off-site location that is somehow related to the employer who has provoked a strike).
The entire purpose of strike action is, of course, to collectively wield power that is commensurate to that of employers. As with the limits on vaguely defined political activity, the purpose of these restrictions is to debilitate organized labor. Members are already prohibited from breaking the law while picketing. These additional rules simply serve to deter strike action altogether.
This part of the legislation has already had a chilling effect, according to the locked-out boilermakers at Edmonton’s CESSCO Fabrication and Engineering Ltd. The membership of Boilermakers Lodge 146 voted to strike on June 19 after two years of fruitless bargaining. On June 25, the company announced that, within days, it would be locking out thirty boilermakers and welders. A month later, Bill 32 went into effect, and, as of writing, the workers are still locked out.
Mack Walker, assistant business manager with the lodge, said the legislation has impeded their ability to picket peacefully, as people can now “drive right through the workers who are trying to speak to them.”
Under previous legislation, workers engaged in a job action were allowed to block individuals attempting to enter the workplace for up to ten minutes. After July 29 — when Bill 32 went into effect — this tactic was eliminated from the picketers’ playbook, sending a clear message to working people that any attempt to subvert employers’ control over their lives, however moderate, is futile.
Bill 32 makes complete sense when viewed as part of a larger project of crushing the labor movement. The UCP is turning Alberta into a United States–style right-to-work state, where employees can simply opt out of union membership and its attendant dues, while reaping all the collective benefits accrued through negotiations.