Union picketing and political campaigning curbed under proposed Alberta bill

A new bill introduced Tuesday would restore "balance" in the workplace by legislating restrictions on where unions can picket and how they can use membership dues to finance political activities, says Alberta's labour minister.

Bill 32 aims to restore 'balance' between business and union rights, minister says

Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping discusses Bill 32 prior to its introduction in the Alberta legislature on Tuesday. (CBC)

A new bill introduced Tuesday would restore "balance" in the workplace by legislating restrictions on where unions can picket and how they can use membership dues to finance political activities, says Alberta's labour minister.

Bill 32, introduced in the legislature by Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping, proposes changes to employment standards and the labour relations code.

Copping said the proposed legislation would support economic recovery by cutting "red tape" for businesses and would reverse some changes made by the NDP when they were in government.

"Significant changes were made under the previous government that pushed the balance toward the union side," Copping said. "We needed to make some changes to restore that balance."

If passed, the Restoring Balance in Alberta's Workplaces Act would impose limits on where unions can picket during strikes or lockouts. They wouldn't be allowed to block or delay someone from crossing a picket line, nor would they be allowed to picket a secondary work site without permission of the Labour Relations Board. 

The bill would also make Alberta the only jurisdiction in Canada to require union members to opt-in to having a portion of their dues go to "political activities." Unions would also be required to prepare financial statements for their membership to detail where the money is spent. 

The United Conservative Party government has complained about how unions have engaged in political activity to oppose its policies and support the Official Opposition NDP. 

Copping said the government isn't trying to suppress criticism from unions with the changes in Bill 32. He said the opt-in clause was in the UCP platform and responds to complaints from union members.

Picketing changes

Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta, said in a news release that Bill 32 would limit her union's ability to stand up for its members and fight against measures such as the government's move to privatize some parts of the health-care system. 

"UNA members set their union's priorities and actions and elect representatives to carry out those directions," Smith said in the release.

"Bill 32 creates an unnecessary administrative burden for unions and interferes in a democratic process that is determined by our members."

Unifor called the bill an attack on the rights of working people.

"Jason Kenney is using government regulations to benefit his friends in big business," Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor Western regional director, said in a news release.

"Fixing the rules to give even greater power to the rich and powerful will only hurt Alberta's economic recovery. Working people must be heard if we're going to build a more fair and sustainable society."

Last month, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees filed a statement of claim challenging the constitutionality of Bill 1, which imposes hefty fines for an individual or group found to have blocked critical infrastructure such as roads, pipelines or rail lines.

Unifor predicted the courts will eventually rule Bill 32 and Bill 1 are unconstitutional. 

NDP Opposition leader Rachel Notley characterized the bill as a "blatant attack on working people" that will rob workers of money and their rights.

"There are so many things in this bill designed to take money out of the pockets of working Albertans," Notley said.

"The UCP themselves acknowledge roughly $100 million of costs will be eliminated. But make no mistake. What they mean is that's $100 million of wages that won't be paid to people in the form of overtime, vacation pay, those kinds of things."

The legislation would also "clamp down on the free speech of the people who join unions," Notley said.

"In essence, the one job [Premier Jason Kenney] is creating here is the job for the lawyers," she said. "This whole bill is going to find its way to the courts because he's breaching charter right after charter right of working people throughout this province."

Copping acknowledged that Bill 32 would create some "red tape" for unions that would now have to apply to the Labour Relations Board in order to picket a secondary site. 

The secondary site rule doesn't apply to places like city hall or the legislature. 

Copping said making unions apply for permission will ensure that businesses targeted by secondary pickets are in fact allies of employers involved in the disputes. 

"So we are not disrupting a business that otherwise would not be disrupted because the union may believe it's an ally," he said. 

The board would be allowed to prohibit the collection of union dues during an illegal strike; an employer could be forced to pay union dues during an illegal lockout. 

The process for a union to reach a first contract with an employer would become more restrictive if Bill 32 is passed. Arbitration would only be allowed as a measure of last resort. 

Bill 32 would also make it easier for employers to apply for variances and exemptions to workplace safety rules. 

The bill proposes a number of changes to rules for holiday pay, work averaging agreements, and group layoffs.