Monday, December 23, 2013

Prospects for an AUPE deal in the new year

As 2013 winds down, public-sector labour relations in Alberta remains focused on the dispute between the Alberta Union of Province Employees (AUPE) and the Redford government over the collective agreement for Alberta civil servants. The eventual settlement will likely provide a pattern for upcoming negotiations with the nurses and health services workers as well as for municipalities and their unions.

Bill 46 imposes a COLA of 0-0-1-1% (which was the employer’s offer at the table) on January 31 unless AUPE and the province reach some other deal. While AUPE is pursuing remedy at the Labour Relations Board and through the courts, it is also seeking to politically pressure the government via direct member action (i.e., visits to MLAs). At the same time, the notion that Redford has abandoned the coalition of moderates that got her elected suggests she’s going to need some kind of electoral Hail Mary in 2016.

Does this open the door for a deal?

Well, for all of AUPE’s bluster, its President’s December 18 communication with AUPE’s members closes with a oddly conciliatory commitment to continued bargaining with the province (no matter how hollow the process is): “My commitment remains to obtain a fair deal for members that reflects your economic realities, and those of our province.”

And, on December 13, AUPE provided a new proposal to the government. A quick read suggests the key pieces of this two-year deal include two additional floater days at Christmas, a reduction in the service requirements necessary to earn additional vacation entitlements, a new harassment clause, and a wage bump (I think for most members—hard to tell) of 3% or the Alberta Average Weekly Earnings (whichever is less).

Setting aside the wage settlement, the other pieces contain enough gains for AUPE to claim a victory. And a two-year deal would expire in early 2015, just in time for AUPE to cash in on the pre-election pork barreling that characterized Alberta politics.

I was chatting with my MLA on Friday and she seemed optimistic a negotiated deal would be reached. And Insight Into Government also suggested something in December 20th issue:
Insight tends to think that the legislated negotiations between the gov’t and the AUPE team will produce a contract — oh, let’s say 0-1-1-1% over four years with an added point in years where resource revenue exceeds a certain benchmark—that will satisfy both sides.
So what are the prospects for some kind of deal? Well, both AUPE and the government need a deal. While egregious employer misbehavior is always useful to a union, unions don’t tend to win long-term conflicts (the deck is stacked against them and solidarity can be fleeting). Consequently, the attractions of a reasonable deal tend to be great for a union.

Having established that it is a hard-line rightist government (perhaps to stop the bleeding on the right and cow other public-sector unions), the Tories could also use some good news to start 2014 to address their declining popularity (and funding) as well as slow the growing sense that they are corrupt, untrustworthy and incompetent. A deal with AUPE won’t undo the political damage of the past year, but it is a start.

There are, of course, reasons for AUPE to not reach a deal. Doing so teaches all Alberta politicians that a take-it-or-we’ll-legislate-it approach is an effective way to bargain. Yes, AUPE has inflicted some short-term political pain on the Tories, but the long-term lesson of reaching a deal in these circumstances is that a mailed first is effective. (In theory, a rich deal might mute future governments’ enthusiasm for this approach, but I think a rich deal is unlikely.)

Perhaps, though, Alberta politicians have already learned this lesson. And perhaps AUPE’s members would rather have a COLA bump than stand on principle.

The existence of Bill 45 (which makes illegal strikes prohibitively expensive) might also give AUPE pause. But, if there is money for the membership, AUPE can afford to pursue remedy for Bill 45 via the courts and (perhaps) continued political action against the Tories. Further, while the potential for an illegal strike is a useful lever at the table, unions don’t really like illegal strikes—they are risky and (depending on how they go down) sometimes suggest the union doesn’t have a good handle on its membership.

There are other issues as well. AUPE has mobilized its membership (and, I’d say, this treatment has radicalized a portion of it). Will a modest (or even crappy) deal alienate these members? Maybe, but AUPE may not care—a docile membership is certainly easier to manage than an engaged one.

AUPE has also seen a lot of support from other public-sector unions, including some from which is estranged to some degree. Will cutting a deal that leaves Bill 45 in play be seen as a betrayal? Maybe. But again, AUPE may not care—solidarity is more of a rhetorical device than a lived credo in Alberta.

Then there are the intangibles. The personal animosity between Thomas Lukaszuk and Guy Smith is fairly evident and might hinder a deal. But Lukaszuk seems to have had his wings somewhat clipped (e.g., he’s been much less of an ass on twitter since the cabinet shuffle). And both Smith and Lukaszuk are likely prepared to do a grip-and-grin if the deal is good enough. Those who saw Larry Booi and Lyle Oberg make nice in the wake of the 2002 teacher’s strike know that nothing is impossible in labour relations.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 20, 2013

Workplace fatality prosecutions in Alberta: Going down!

One of the arguments against the Bill 45 is that the penalties unions face are entirely out of proportion with other penalties found in Alberta's employment laws.

For example, if there is an illegal strike over an unsafe workplace, the union automatically gets hit with $250k in fines, $1m a day in abatement costs, a three-month dues suspension plus individual members get fined and union officers can be held civilly liable. Keep in mind that there have been 2 illegal strikes since 2005, lasting a combined total of (I think) 5 days.

On the other hand, if an employer kills a worker, the maximum fine they face under the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act is $500k. On average, there are 137 fatalities in Alberta workplaces each year.

A deeper look at Alberta’s OHS prosecution records suggests an even starker contrast: employers are unlikely to be prosecuted if they kill a worker and they will get no where near the maximum fine.

The table below tracks prosecution numbers (not all are about fatalities, but most are) and average penalties from 2005 to December 20, 2013. The averages I calculated by hand from government data on the Human Services website. I’ve also thrown in the number of compensable fatalities reported by the WCB each year (the underestimates fatalities but is the best data available).

OHS prosecutions in Alberta, 2005 to 2013

Average Penalty

What this data shows is that the number of occupational fatalities has stayed roughly the same over time. Small numbers tend to vary more year-to-year, but the long-term average is about 137 a year.

The number of prosecutions (while also variable) is trending downwards over time. That is to say, employers are less likely to be prosecuted for killing workers.

The dollar value of fines is trending upwards. But the big jumps in 2012 and 2013 are a bit misleading—they are skewed because of the small number of prosecutions and for a few really big fines for incidents with multiple violations (which confuses both the numerator and denominator).

Looking at specific cases in 2012 and 2013, the average penalty for killing a worker in Alberta is now between $200k and $300k ($275k was the most recent one I saw). Overall, this is a disappointing record and shows that employers continue to face few and low fines for killing workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

CTF commentary on Bill 46 needs clarification

This morning, the Edmonton Journal published an op-ed piecefrom the Canadian Taxpayers Federation addressing Bills 45 and 46. Regarding Bill 46, the CTF says that the government needed to enact this legislation in order to align expenditures with the revenue the government is (and isn’t) prepared to collect from taxpayers and oil companies.

Setting aside the CTF’s false supposition that reducing expenditures is the only way a government can balance a budget, the CTF makes a number of contestable statements when justifying its position. 
Rather than work with the government to address the serious problems with the costs of public-sector employee compensation, they walked away from the negotiating table.
The purpose of a union is to improve its members' wages and working conditions. It is not the union’s job to address the so-called problem of public-sector compensation.

Also, AUPE did not “walk away” from the table. Rather, bargaining reached impasse (because the employer's offer was less what the union would get at arbitration) and the union then referred the dispute to the dispute-resolution the government had previously legislated.
 If AUPE fails to come back to the table and strike a deal, the bill will legislate one in its place.
Actually, what Bill 46 means is that, if AUPE will not accept the employer’s last offer, then the employer will legislatively force the deal on AUPE. AUPE has no opportunity to “strike a deal” because negotiating when the outcome is predetermined is a meaningless exercise.
There is no good reason for anyone but our elected legislators to have the final say on the province’s budget.
The government wears two hats (employer and legislator) and this creates a very unequal playing field because the government may be tempted to use its legislative power to achieve its aims as the employer.

This inequity is broadly viewed (i.e., outside the Redford government) as illegitimate and, for that reason, when governments are not prepared to endure a strike, governments have chosen to allow a neutral third party to settle contract disputes via arbitration.
Arbiters in the private sector generally do not award raises when a company is hemorrhaging money or is unprofitable.
Private-sector differs from the  public sector because public sector employers can control their revenue. Consequently, the operative principle in public-sector arbitration is that public-sector workers should not have to bear the cost of providing public services via inadequate wages or poor working conditions.

Following this principle, if governments aren’t prepared to raise taxes or explore other revenue streams, then they must accept the political consequences of reduced services. Unless the government is prepared to (ab)use its legislative power to change the rules in the middle of the game and pass those costs off to public-sector workers.

It is interesting that a taxpayer group fails to mention that Bill 46 actually creates two categories of taxpayers. There are regular taxpayers. And then there are government employees. This latter group of taxpayers carries more of the cost of public services than regular taxpayers because of their foregone wages. How is that fair?

EDIT: Here is AUPE's response.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, December 16, 2013

Political donations as a form of job action?

There was an interesting op-ed in the Edmonton Journal this weekend by an Alberta doctor, suggesting that Alberta unions could respond to Conservative legislation like Bills 45 and 46 by regularly encouraging their members to make donations to opposition political parties.

Calling such action a “virtual strike”, Dr. Lloyd Maybaum writes:
Undermining the basic democratic principles of free speech and the right to assembly calls for drastic action. If the entire Alberta Federation of Labour, all 145,000 members, joined in a single virtual strike day, the $14.5 million donated would change the face of union negotiations and political process, not only in this province but across the country. 
Although it may be forbidden for unions to use the word ‘strike,’ whether it is called a virtual strike day, a political action day or Operation Nightingale, if the Alberta government wants to play hardball, a virtual strike will be a grand slam home run for the union movement.
My own sense of things is unions need both political and legal strategies to respond to Bills 45 and 46. As a colleague related at a holiday party, the labour movement in Alberta requires a government tolerant of organized labour in order to survive. Neither the Conservatives nor the Wild Rose really fit the bill.

Yet, the absence of cooperation among the centre-left (ND, Liberal, Alberta Party, Greens) effectively precludes electoral success. Further, many Alberta trade union members are themselves conservative. The upshot is that an ABC (anybody but conservative) approach is the most viable strategy to break the Tory stranglehold on public policy in Alberta--policy which is now aggressively anti-union.

Given that state of affairs, politically punishing the Conservatives (who seem to be facing a revenue problem themselves) by arming their opponents may be a useful tactic. This may force a re-evaluation of the utility of anti-union policies, it may trigger political engagement by individuals. and it may result in a widening of the political discourse in Alberta.

Yes, it is a bit odious that the only way individual’s can gain decent public policy is to “buy” it via political donations. But if that is the game (and I think it is in Alberta), organized labour and workers more generally ought to figure out how to play and win the game.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 13, 2013

AUPE files suit over Bill 46

AUPE has filed a court challenge of Bill 46, which displaces collective bargaining with a government imposed settlement for Alberta's civil servants. You can download the statement of claim here. The basic arguments are three:

  • Freedom of association (s.2(d) of the Charter)) requires a meaningful process of collective bargaining and Bill 46 infringes on that by unilaterally termination of bargaining and imposing a settlement outside of the agreed to process.
  • The right to liberty and security of person (s.7 of the Charter) protects workers from being forced to work under terms coerced, dictated and imposed by the state.
  • Various international agreements and accords to which Canada (and thus Alberta) is a party to protect collective bargaining and have been violated by Bill 46.

I expect this challenge is part of a broader strategy of resistance. At least I hope so, because as compelling as a human rights-based approach is to policy wonks and unionists, it just doesn't resonate with your average worker or citizen.

By contrast, the blatant unfairness of the government's actions (changing the rules in the middle of the game to advantage themselves) screams "illegitimate" and may be a useful way to shift the discussion away from the "the taxpayers can't afford rich settlements" narrative that right-wing commentators harp on. Hell, even a child knows it's unfair to change the rules in the middle of the game.

This song (alas only audio), while written about BC Premier Gordon Campbell's 2002 rewriting of BC health-care contracts (which was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2007), captures this unfairness sensibility about right: "A contract ain't a contract anymore".

EDIT: While I was out shovelling snow, it occurred to me that I meant to mention AUPE's efforts in this regard via their "Alberta Way" ads (this will teach me to blog on only one cup of coffee):

This is a good start but would be more effective if there was a popular protest element to reinforce its measured tone. The Premier's efforts to wrap herself in the death-shroud of Nelson Mandela, for example, cries out for e-ridicule in the light of her government's Bills 45 and 46.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

So what happens post-Bills 45 and 46?

Last Friday’s cabinet shuffle saw Thomas Lukaszuk moved from Enterprise and Advanced Education to the new Ministry of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour (JSTL). Replacing Lukaszuk in Advanced Ed (and as Deputy Premier) is Dave Hancock. Hancock was previously Minister of Human Services, which then included many of the organizational units that will comprise JSTL.

There was a certain amount of congratulations among Alberta PSE observers, with some suggesting that Lukaszuk has been moved and demoted because of their reaction to the $140-odd million in cuts he administered. I think this analysis is incorrect. Cabinet (not Lukaszuk) made the PSE cuts. And, after a $50m reversal, $100m of the cuts remain in effect. There is no indication that these will be reversed under Hancock and his first pronouncement continued Lukaszuk’s emphasis on commercialization.

As one of my colleagues noted, Hancock generally arrives in a Ministry, triggers a big policy review and then leaves (or is moved out) before anything much actually comes of the review. You can look at his time in advanced ed, education and human services for examples. Hancock is also a loyal Tory: witness his handling of Bills 45/46, the deaths of children in foster care, and changes to programming for persons with disabilities. He’s likely in PSE to simply calm the waters via a distracting and ultimately pointless stakeholder engagement process.

In the wake of Bills 45 and 46, Lukaszuk’s move to JSTL is profoundly disturbing for organized labour. Lukaszuk’s handling of the illegal prison-guard strike was clumsy and aggressive. Subsequently, he was appointed as chair of the Public Sector Resources Committee, which coordinates collective bargaining with the various public-sector unions. (“Coordinates collective bargaining”, in this context, seems to be “decides the outcome and legislates it.”)

Given Redford’s swing to the right, labour policy coming out of JSTL will likely have two main thrusts.

First, both the nurse and health-science contracts are coming up and I expect that, if they don’t take the government’s 0-0-1-1 pattern, they will face Bill 46-style legislation in the spring sitting. Tactically, Bill 45 ties their hands by making illegal walkouts prohibitively expensive. Even mass resignations might well trigger the punitive provisions of Bill 45. 

That said, nurses have a degree of public support that other government workers don’t so the end-game (while highly risky) might well be better for them than for other public sector unions. A useful primer on nursing strikes (focused on Nova Scotia) is available here: 

Second, on the “in for a penny, in for a pound” principle, some folks are suggesting that the Conservative Party really faces no consequence if it goes ahead with significant changes to the Labour Relations Code (which would include private-sector workers). The PC’s promised change in their 2012 platform that included:
A new PC government will introduce a ‘Paycheque Protection, Transparency and Freedom to Choose’ Act – making it mandatory for trade unions to:
  • Provide existing and prospective members with annual financial statements that summarize and disclose how dues were spent in the previous year; and 
  • Give members the ability to ‘opt-out’ of the proportion of union dues that fund activities unrelated to collective bargaining and grievance administration. 
We will also enact Amendments to the Labour Code that:
  • Close the ‘frivolous lawsuit loophole’.
  • Ban the imposition of fines against members who do work for non-union employers or employers with a non-signatory union. 
  • Enable parties to negotiate single collective agreements for all workers of a company or project, rather than separate agreements for each trade group. (p.30)
While experience teaches that the PCs won’t do everything they promised when campaigning, this list gives us some sense of potential changes. The changes to the Labour Relations Code mostly seem to be designed to open up unionized construction to non-union firms, like Merit Shop contractors. Merit Shop is a member of the Construction Competitiveness Coalition, a group that sought changes to the Labour Relations Code after making donations to the Tories.

The Tories dismissed concerns that there was ever any kind of quid pro quo, with Dave Hancock telling Global News: “That’s ridiculous. Money has never bought public policy.” I guess time will tell, but Merit Shop continued to push on the Paycheque Protection, Transparency and Freedom to Choose Act in its most recent op-ed piece in the Calgary Herald.

Despite the desires of non-union contractors, Alberta’s building trades unions have been mostly acquiescent and there is no real public clamouring among oil companies for (potentially disruptive) changes in the Labour Relations Code (although a review of the Labour Relations Code started by Lukaszuk when he was Minister of Employment and Immigration in 2011 is still outstanding as far as I can tell).

There likely would, however, be a political appetite among employers for laws allowing random drug testing of employees. While recent court and arbitral decisions have tended to run against random drug testing, this does not appear to be an important consideration for the Tories. Such legislation might woo back support from the petroleum industry that has migrated to the Wild Rose.

Unrelated to this, as Minister of JSTL, Lukaszuk will also likely be tasked with handling the province’s negotiations with the feds over the Canada Jobs Grant (CJG). The feds’ most recent proposal will cost all provinces a bundle of cash and likely gut training for social service clients as money will be transferred to training already employed oil-patch workers (who are better positioned to gain required financial support from employers).

On this file, Lukaszuk will be dealing with Jason Kenney who, in 2012, characterized Lukaszuk as “a complete and utter asshole.” (Perhaps an illustration of the “takes one to know one” maxim?) So that’s gonna go well.

-- Bob Barnetson

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Privatize Employment Insurance?

On Friday I did a spot on Alberta Primetime about the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) proposal to privatize Employment Insurance (EI) benefits. You can read the proposal here.

The crux of the CTF’s proposal is eliminating government-managed EI that allocates benefits on the basis of “hours worked” and local unemployment rates. In its place, each worker would get an individual account into which the worker and employer EI premiums (this maxes out at about $2100 a year) would be deposited.

Workers could then draw on these funds to support themselves while unemployed, use it for training, and roll any excess into a retirement fund when they call it a day. These individual accounts would be held by individuals at banks and investment firms kind of like RRSPs or RESPs (or could be left with the government to manage).

A basic problem with the CTF’s proposal is that there is no good rationale for the massive policy change it proposes.

The CTF claims the EI system inequitable distributes EI funds. Specifically, Atlantic Canadians and Quebecers get more than they pay and this is funded by workers and employers in Ontario and western Canada. Of course, EI isn’t designed to equitably distribute funds, it is designed to distribute funds to the unemployed. So, in fact, the system is doing exactly what it was designed to do.

And it mirrors the long-standing Canadian tradition of sharing good and bad fortune with others via economic transfers. Flood in Calgary? Everyone chips in tax dollars to help. Unemployment in PEI? Everyone chips in EI premiums to help.

The CTF also claims that dividing Canada into 58 “economic zones” is confusing and unfair. These “economic zones” are simply cells in a fairly straight-forward table (you can see it here if you scroll down to Table 3). Basically the more hours you worked and the higher the local unemployment rate, the longer you can receive EI benefits (which seems like a reasonable way to allocate benefits). Depending on these factors, your EI benefits can vary from zero weeks to 45.

The CTF highlights some of the quirks of the system, where people living in urban areas (where there are more employment opportunities) get less EI than those living a stone’s throw away in a rural area (where unemployment is higher). These quirks arise out of an effort to link benefits to employment opportunities and are hardly an argument to privatize EI. If EI didn’t distinguish on the basis of local unemployment rates, then the CTF would complain about that—a total catch-22 for EI program planners.

The CTF also trots out the moral hazard argument, where (unnamed) workers are said to be gaming the system to avoid work. Ignored are the actual reasons for repeated use of EI, such as lack of any job opportunities, lack of jobs due to seasonal employment, lack of decent jobs and other complicating factors (e.g., sickness, new baby, dying relative).

At the heart of this “argument” seems to be a misunderstanding about how insurance works. I’ve never made a claim on my home fire insurance (fortunately). And I certainly don’t begrudge those who have. This is because making an insurance claim isn’t a moral failure—it is simply something you do when the event you insured yourself against occurs.

Finally, the CTF claims the EI system has high administrative costs (about 11% of premiums are used for “administration”). This is pretty much in line with the cost of running EI systems in other OECD countries (the average is 8%) and it is unclear what “administrative costs” entail—is training to get people back to work buried in there?

What the CTF doesn’t tell you is that any system has administrative costs. The cost of the public system is easy to see because it is all tallied up in federal financial statements. The cost of the CTF’s proposed private system is hidden and will be applied to each worker in the form of administrative fees (e.g., mutual fund management fees). These fees will include not only the cost of operating the system, but also a profit for the bank or investment advisor. There is no estimate of the net savings, but my guess is that it will wash out.

Interestingly, the CTF’s calculations about how much each person would have under their proposal don’t include these fees. They also don’t use real (i.e., inflation adjusted) dollars (although they do increase annual payments by inflation). These two (rather glaring) oversights mean their calculations are wildly optimistic (we won't have that much money and it won't be worth as much as it sounds like in 40 years) and that we shouldn’t trust their math. Similarly, the CTF constantly uses numbers for a “couple” in the report which is misleading unless you read very carefully because this “doubles” all of the numbers they use (so things sound better than they will be).

Setting aside that there is no real rationale for this proposal, there are some implications that are alarming (but, of course, not explored in the CTF position paper).

The CTF (very obliquely) suggests (on p.14) kicking nursing moms and the disabled (who account for 27% and 6% of total Alberta EI claims respectively) off of EI even though they are out of work and paid into the EI system. Nice.

The CTF suggests that a worker employed full-time at a wage of $47k or better will have $530k saved after 40 years (they of course use the couples doubling so it sounds like a million-dollar idea). But they don't talk about workers in depressed areas who won’t make $47k a year thus won’t have a full $2100 put into their personal EI account each year and will need all of that and more to keep the heat on and fridge full during periods of unemployment.

To put this in real world terms, well-off workers in western Canada will be able to buy condos in Phoenix when they retire while children in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia will go to school hungry and without winter coats. Because of this (of course unmentioned) dynamic hidden within the proposal, the CTF’s proposal is unkind, unjust and, frankly, immoral.

The CTF then goes on to suggest that, if EI is eliminated in (say Newfoundland and Labrador), employers will increase workers’ wages to make up for it. That is contrary to the history of wages and working conditions, where desperate workers will accept lower wages to keep food on the table, employers know that and grind workers wages down (rather than increasing them). It also seems to ignore that, in a global economy, if employers raise wages, their product will be uncompetitive and they will go out of business. It is baffling how the CTF can advance a proposal so at odds with basic labour-market economics.

What will most likely happen is that employment-aged people in Atlantic Canada and Quebec will either live in poverty or migrate (permanently or temporarily) to hotter economies. This population drain damages the sending communities and it also floods the labour market in receiving communities, thereby depressing wages in hot economies. How is this good for anyone, except the banks and investors who will get to charge management fees?

Overall, the CTFs proposal lacks a rationale, is misleading and oblivious to labour market dynamics, and works immediate and real-world harm on workers (and their families) in Atlantic Canada and Quebec in order to benefit well off workers in western Canada and bankers. If this was a student’s paper, it would warrant an F.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What's next for Alberta unions?

By the weekend, Bill 45 (punishing illegal strikes) and Bill 46 (pre-empting collective bargaining and imposing a settlement on Alberta Union of Provincial Employee members) will be law. So what is next for organized labour?

I see two paths forwards. The first is challenging the constitutionality of both bills under the Charter. That is a long-term strategy. It might be possible to get both in front of a Queen’s Bench judge by the next election but likely these will end up (in 2018 or 2019) in front of the Supreme Court. And a win here isn’t that meaningful—too much time will have passed and the Tories simply don’t seem to care if legislation is unconstitutional—they’ll just enact another law and let unions fight that one too.

The second, and more important, is a strategy to unseat the Tory government in the next election. Everyone expects the Tories to form government. The result is that the Tories are not held to account for even the most egregious behaviours (in the last weeks we have allegations of dead foster kids, dead seniors, mis-spent public money, ethical violations getting a pass by the ethics commissioner, unconstitutional privacy legislation, poor effort around a(nother) massive environmental event, etc). The unseemly close relation between big oil and the Tories means that for labour, the Tories are not only untrustworthy (e.g., compare and contrast Redford’s position on organized labour with her government’s actions), but are basically unredeemable, even if under “new” management.

One of the challenges for the unions is that there is no viable alternative of a palatable political persuasion. Alberta’s left remains fractured (for likely good reasons in the eyes of left-leaning and centreist politicians and activists). And the Wild Rose, while making nice-nice with labour this week (and probably supported by a goodly number of rank-and-file unionists), are hardly labour friendly.

The most viable strategy for labour, then, is an ABC (Anyone But Conservative) strategy. This takes advantage of the Wild Rose support in the south and the more centre-leftist leanings in urban areas (obviously I’m generalizing) with the goal of producing a minority government. It also gets unions out of the difficult (and probably impossible) job of asking their members to vote against the members’ own political preferences by allowing past PC supporters to go left or right (depending on their inclinations).

This could, of course, split the union vote and allow the PCs to slide up the middle (which, for non-Alberta readers means “the right”). But it is still a better bet than hoping for some kind of socialist “hail Mary and come to Jesus” breakthrough (however much I might personally want that) or doing nothing.

There are, of course, a couple of challenges with this. The first is that, for all of the singing of Solidarity Forever, the labour movement in Alberta is deeply divided. While I’m generalizing a bit for simplicity, the basic dynamics are these. The construction unions are very conservative and like the Petro Conservatives because their policies mean jobs (at least for awhile).

The rest of labour dislikes the PCs but can be bought off. Most recently we saw the teachers throwing in with the PCs, but the nature of Alberta labour relations is that getting bought off just before the election is the most viable strategy to make gains for members. Can the non-constructions unions hold it together long enough to organize a provincial campaign? Some of this will depend on how hard the Tories hit them over the next few years and whether trade unions are prepared to hold their noses when (and if) the pre-election gift basket arrives..

A second challenge is that, among the non-construction unions, there are some long-standing differences and some, shall we say “strong” personalities? This augurs against close working relationships between the big players and big unions. The Tories have traditionally exploited this as part of their “election-year jack-pot” strategy. That said, the trade unionists I have talked to are pissed and feel betrayed—that augurs in favour of some sort of sustained and joint action.

A third challenge is generating a coherent storyline to attack the Tories on. As much as freedom of expression and freedom of association are important values, they don’t really resonate with the average Albertan. And Albertans have not traditionally been sympathetic to public sector workers, viewing them as overpaid and lazy. This reflects Tory messaging and a certain degree of ideological predisposition by Albertans, although the nurses and teachers are notable exceptions to this dim view.

But gaining the support of Albertans in general might well not be necessary.

In a game of swing votes, the votes of organized public-sector unionists plus spouses amount to some 600,000 votes (a rough calculation). And the attack on public-sector wages, pensions and rights—plus the sense of betrayal after the 2012 election—is a compelling storyline to those members. Given that voting turnout in Alberta in 2012 was only 1.2 million, a committed base of 600,000 could unseat the Tories in many ridings. A bit of cooperation by the centre-left would further help pull ridings away from the Tories. Focusing on these bread-and-butter issues among unions members also has the advantage of legitimacy: it is hard to deny that this is the proper work and audience of unions.

So, as my grandmother might have asked, what does that get you?

Well, best case (and I use the term loosely), you get a minority government that is vulnerable to the moderating effects of other parties and which has to govern well or face being unseated. You also get a fracture in the traditional Tory-business compact, perhaps opening up political discourse and opportunities.

Yes, a minority government (most likely Tory or Wild Rose) could still do bad things to the interests of workers. But that possibility is better than the certainty that another Tory majority government will do bad things to workers.

The questions are whether organized labour can get (and stay) organized to achieve political change.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Merit Contractors, trade unions, the goose and the gander

Peter Pilarski, vice president of Merit Contractors, has an interesting op-ed piece in the Calgary Herald this morning. His complaint is that 43 “union bosses” bought Progressive Conservative memberships, attended the PC convention two weeks back and then voted against a resolution that affected union members (more on this in a moment). According to Pilarski, this was somehow objectionable because these trade unionists tried “to influence (the meeting’s) outcome to their advantage.

Let’s set aside how buying a PC membership and casting a vote on a policy resolution, seems pretty much a poster-case for how democracy works and ponder how else the “union bosses” might have advocated for a policy position that is in the interests of their members.

Perhaps the private sector can give us some inspiration?

Hey, I know, let's think back to this spring when a series of emails between the Construction Competitiveness Coalition (a “union” which Merit Contractors is a member of) and the Conservative Party was unearthed. According to Global News:
In the emails, a member of the coalition refers to meetings with Alison Redford in 2011 before she won the Tory party leadership. It notes that “at that meeting she expressed strong support for our objectives and promised quick action when elected. This was further underscored by commitments published in the PC election platform."
(These objectives were significant changes in the labour law thatwould advantage construction employers.)
Other emails following her victory in the 2012 provincial election say the coalition was eager for another meeting with Redford on the labour file.

One of the emails to the executive director of Redford’s Calgary office calls his group a high-powered coalition of senior construction executives, including the presidents of PCL Construction and Ledcor.

“We both made major contributions to Ms. Redford’s leadership campaign and to the PC election campaign fund. Other members of the coalition were also significant supporters of both the premier and the PC party,” wrote Ledcor executive Tom Brown.

“There will be considerable disappointment and possibly misgivings within our coalition if I do not have something to report next week.”
In the words of Star Trek's George Takei, "Eau my!"

So, a private-sector solution can attempt to seek favourable public policy through donations. (This is, in fact, how the Construction Competitiveness Coalition characterizes its behaviour:
Paul de Jong, a spokesman for the Construction Competitiveness Coalition, said its member companies have done nothing wrong. He said any financial support a company may give to the Tories is part of its obligation as a stakeholder in the province’s future.)
But trade unionists should be ashamed to vote at a PC policy convention? Charitably, then, we might characterize Pilarski's position as a bit of a double-standard.

Pilarski’s op-ed then segues into praising union “transparency” legislation that is currently in vogue with conservative governments. The basic argument here is that, since unions get preferred tax treatment (dues are deductable, among other things), unions must then meet a higher standard of disclosure. Never mind that such disclosure will be financially crippling for unions and that unions are already directly accountable to their members via their constitutions. Regulation is good for unions, say conservatives.

Yet it is interesting that consistent logic is (again) not applied to the private sector. Companies get preferred tax treatment (e.g., being able to deduct expenses like creative sentences imposed for killing workers). Yet there is no sense that they should be held to exceptional levels of account (although note how Merit Contractors might well get caught by such legislation).

Again, we seem to have two standards that, (and it must be a coincidence) advantage private companies and punish workers and their associations.


-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, December 2, 2013

So what is behind Bill 45?

I’ve had a couple of emails from colleagues asking me what precipitated Alberta’s Bill 45 (the Public Sector Services Continuation Act), which imposes significant penalties on unions and workers when they undertake an illegal strike or even threaten such a strike.

Dave Hancock, Minister for Human Services, outlined several arguments for Bill 45 when he introduced it for second reading:
Mr. Hancock: The illegal strike provisions in the acts and regulations… have not been updated for 20 years. It was incumbent on government to ask if the penalties in place were still a sufficient deterrent to illegal strikes that negatively affect critical public services because these are services that are provided to the most vulnerable of Albertans. When illegal strike action gets in the way of these services, the confidence of Albertans in those services and the people who provide them is undermined.

…In essence, this bill is about protecting the Alberta taxpayer from personal or financial harm due to an illegal strike. It establishes a more comprehensive and responsive system to respond to the threat of illegal strikes or strikes themselves. That’s important, Mr. Speaker, because in some circumstances the threat of a strike requires significant mobilization of resources to avert harm in the event that a strike happens. … 
It is important to note, Mr. Speaker, that the government believes that the majority of workers in these sectors would not willingly take part in illegal activity. …However, once a union has called an illegal strike, workers are often caught between a rock and a hard place. Regardless of how they might feel individually, there’s always pressure on them to follow the dictates of their union leaders. Hansard, November 28, 2013, p. 3212
(As an aside, Laurie Blakeman’s rebuke that starts on page 3214 is worth a read.)
So basically Hancock is making three arguments for bill 45:
  1. Illegal strikes are costly and potentially jeopardize the well being of Albertans.
  2. The penalties for illegal strikes have not been effective at deterring or managing them.
  3. Unions pressurize workers to go on illegal strikes and that is unfair.
None of these arguments really stand up to even cursory scrutiny.
  1. There have been two illegal strikes in the last 10 years (one in 2012 and one in 2013), both attributable to ham-fisted management by the government. The overall cost of illegal strikes is small. And, while these illegal strikes caused some inconvenience to the public, there was no evidence of imminent danger to the public.
  2. The lack of illegal strikes (2 in a decade) and the short-lived nature of illegal strikes (1 day and 3 days, if memory serves) suggest that the existing penalties both deter and manage illegal strikes just fine.
  3. Both of the illegal strikes have been wildcat strikes. These are strikes not called by the union, but rather are spontaneous acts by frustrated workers (although I suspect that union structures have facilitated this kind of mobilization).
Since the emperor (fortunately figuratively!) has no clothes, we’re back to the basic question of why is the government enacting this legislation and why is it moving to do so so quickly? I can think of four potential explanations (none of which is mutually exclusive):
  1. Retribution: The government was forced to back down by the wildcat strike in health care and it (and more specifically the Deputy Premier) was embarrassed by (and defied during) the corrections-officer strike. Both of these strikes were by AUPE members and the harsh penalties in Bill 45 (and its roll out at the same time as the government announced wage-freeze legislation for AUPE’s civil service bargaining unit) suggests this is political payback. I don’t think it is possible to under-estimate the role of personal agendas and pettiness in Alberta politics.
  2. Fear of revolt: The spread of the wildcat strike highlighted for the government that strikes can be hard to control. The corrections-officer strike in particular appeared to be beyond the control of AUPE for awhile. Such unmanaged conflict is often the first step towards a general insurrection. And while government MLAs might support such civil disobedience in other countries, it frankly scares the pants off them when it happens here. Rather than addressing the root problem, the Tories have opted for repression (cause that always turns out well in the end…).
  3. Fear of the Wild Rose: While many government MLAs were elected by centerist voters who feared the Wild Rose, the Wild Rose’s reform efforts over the past year has made them appear less scary. Thus the Reford government needs to regain votes on the right before the next election and picking on public sector workers (who won’t be voting for her government MLAs again anyhow, given how the government is screwing them on pension reform) is a good way to look hawkish and perhaps regain some support among voters to went Wild Rose last time. It also distracts attention from the government’s inept handling of foster-care deaths and perhaps bolsters Premier Redford’s power in caucus—MLAs can’t be critical of the Premier when the government faces such criticism.
  4. Time and the Charter: It is two years until the next election and, in that time, it is likely that large portions of Bill 45 (and Bill 46) will be struck down as unconstitutional (I have not seen a detailed legal analysis yet, but the bills appear to violate freedom of expression and association as well as the right to equal treatment). So Redford gets the benefit of looking tough on unions, but having these Bills struck down (“that’s gosh-darned Liberal Charter”) will partly ameliorate the damage among the undecided by the time the election rolls around. In this way, she gets to have her cake and eat it too—perhaps cobbling together enough votes to hold onto government.
Overall, the motives underlying Bill 45 appear stunningly politically craven. And these bills demonstrate a lack of regard for constitutionally protected (albeit politically inconvenient) rights and freedoms. And these bills impose penalties on civil disobedience ($1m/day abatement levies) that are much harsher than those imposed on employers when they kill workers in the workplace ($500k maximum but most deaths aren’t prosecuted).

While I’m often dismayed by Alberta government policy, I’ve rarely been so disgusted by it or embarrassed to be an Albertan.

-- Bob Barnetson