The Alberta government introduced Bill 17, the Fair and Family-Friendly Workplaces Act on May 24. Bill 17 makes changes to both the Employment Standards Act and the Alberta Labour Code. The Employment Standards Act will now provide job-protected unpaid leaves in the event of personal and family illness, death of a family member, and domestic violence, as well as enforce measures regarding employer violations.
Neither the Employment Standards Act nor the Alberta Labour Code have been revised since 1988. Their passage was another service to the oil, gas, and construction monopolies during the time of Mulroney, Reagan, and Thatcher when workers were under heavy attack. The continued existence of these reactionary laws leaves provincial labour legislation stacked against the collective interest of the workers.
The organized workers' movement has demanded major changes to the Alberta Labour Code for many years. The Alberta Federation of Labour and its allies are now putting forward these demands in the form of the Unstack the Deck! Campaign (http://unstackthedeck.ca/). Some demands, like an end to “double-breasting”, date back to the 1988 Labour Code. Others have been on the agenda of the labour movement for as long as 60 years.
Longstanding demands of Alberta workers include:
First contract arbitration at the request of the employee bargaining unit. Employers are notorious for refusing to sign a first collective agreement, prolonging strikes for months and even years;
The right to union certification when a majority of workers have signed cards to join the union. Existing legislation requires a vote and gives employers an opportunity to threaten and fire workers and to undermine their organizing;
Guaranteed access to non-unionized workplaces for union organizers. Workers often live in camps only accessible to those authorized by the employer, for example, the oilsands;
A ban on scab replacement workers when workers go on strike. Many workers still remember the Finning strike of l997 and the Gainers strike of 1986 when hundreds of scabs were brought in, causing violent confrontations on the picket lines. Quebec passed anti-scab legislation over 40 years ago.
The legal right of all workers to refuse to cross a picket line. At present, when workers respect a picket line, their union can be faced with injunctions, massive fines, and even decertification;
An end to double-breasting and spin-offs in the construction industry where contractors can establish spin-off non-union companies to negate collective agreements and pay workers well below their union wage. In 1982, 70 per cent of the Alberta building trades were unionized. Because of double-breasting, this has now dropped to eight per cent.
A prohibition on company-dominated unions such as the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC);
Pay equity legislation to cover all working people. Alberta is the only province which has neither pay equity laws nor a pay equity negotiating framework for public employees.
Bill 17 did make changes regarding the first three of these demands.
Bill 17 mandates first contract arbitration after 90 days. Arbitration can be triggered by either the union or the employer at the discretion of the Labour Board, in which case a strike or lockout becomes illegal.
Union certification will now be allowed by card check if 65 per cent of the workers have signed union cards. A vote will still be required in cases where 40 to 64 per cent of workers have signed cards. The Labour Board can order automatic certification of a union in case of unfair labour practices during an organizing drive, and also decertify a union found guilty of unfair labour practices.
The Labour Board can now order that the union be given access to workers at remote sites where access is controlled by the employer.
Bill 17 also extends essential services legislation to cover all private sector long-term care, continuing care and home care facilities as well as lab and blood services, which is a step backwards. This extension places a major restriction on the right of workers in these sectors to take strike action to defend their wages and working conditions. Now that Alberta workers have the legal right to strike under the Charter, they need to be vigilant that Essential Services Legislation is not misused to nullify that right.
The government is suggesting that the Bill 17 legislation is a "compromise." This does not make sense. Whose interests are being served by maintaining the anti-worker laws of the Conservatives? For example, the legislation permitting double-breasting was written by the construction monopolies. Even before Bill 17 was introduced, the current government was suggesting that banning double-breasting would "destabilize" the construction industry, which is not true. Leaving double-breasting and other anti-worker laws in place will merely continue the previous government’s ongoing attacks on workers’ rights.
CUPE 3911 calls on workers and their organizations to get behind the fight to Unstack the Deck! With 210,000 workers unemployed in Alberta, the status quo is not an option. Now is the time for workers to discuss and implement strategies to establish a new equilibrium where the workers' rights are upheld. Further, it is important to keep in mind that the fight for the demands of the workers is not just a defence of the rights of the workers, but a defence of the rights of all.