Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Rumours of Alberta labour law change

There is some speculation that we will see some changes to Alberta’s labour laws on the next two years. A review of the Workers’ Compensation Board is currently under way.

But there have also been musings about changes to the Employment Standards Code (which sets minimum terms and conditions), the Labour Relations Code (governing unionization and collective bargaining), and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

There is no clear direction on any of these files yet (the Throne Speech was vague, mentioning "modernizing working conditions").

At some point the government will need to move forward on implementing the final pieces of Bill 6 (which extends basic rights to farm workers). Yesterday, the government announced that it is seeking feedback on the working group recommendations about how the Employment Standards Code and Labour Relations Code may apply on farms. The Employment Standards groups came to some interesting recommendations, particularly around child labour.

Other changes that are rumoured to be in the mix include enshrining bereavement leave into the Employment Standards Code and perhaps taking action on violence in convenience stores and gas stations.

Employers, this time in the form of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, aren’t keen. According to Chamber CEO Janet Riopel, “"We've enjoyed a long period of labour peace, so we don't understand why there would be this need for sweeping changes.”

This characterization is untrue in two ways. First, employers often characterize Alberta as a place where there are few strikes or lockouts. This helps build the narrative that everything is hunky-dory. But there have been strikes and lockouts in Alberta, including a surprising number of wildcats. Here is a partial list generated from memory (I know I’m missing some--these are just the ones that stick out):
  • Gainers and five others (1986)
  • Nurses (1988)
  • Social workers (1990)
  • Foothills laundry workers (1995)
  • Maple Leaf Foods, Hinton Mill, Safeway (1997)
  • Teachers and Shaw Conference Centre (2002)
  • Keep Hills coal mine (2003)
  • Lakeside packers and Telus (2005)
  • Palace casino (2006)
  • Teachers (2007)
  • Hospital support workers (2012)
  • Jail guards and Save-on foods (2013)
  • Artspace Independent Living (2014)
  • Points West Living (2016)
Second, Alberta’s current labour laws suppress conflict (by making is hard to unionize and hard for workers to press their demands). Employers probably do enjoy the suppression of overt conflict--not so much workers. Suppressed conflict tends to manifest itself in a number of ways (e.g., higher turn over and lower productivity).

That employers don’t want workers to have more protections, safer workplaces or greater access to collective bargaining is hardly surprising. The question will be to what degree the government goes along with this agenda.

-- Bob Barnetson

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