Alberta government considers changing labour laws

Alberta's NDP government is taking aim at the province's labour laws.

Although there have been amendments over the years, some labour laws have remained untouched since 1976

The Employment Standards code falls under Bill 17: The Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act, passed last summer. (supplied)

Alberta's NDP government is taking aim at the province's labour laws.

Having built its ranks from labour and social activists, there was an expectation that upon being elected the NDP would right the wrongs of what they felt were decades of backward and regressive labour legislation.

Now, it's time to "unstack the deck," says Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan.

McGowan has led the AFL for 12 years. He says every time a new labour minister was appointed, he would deliver the same message.

This time is no different.

"We feel strongly that Alberta law needs to be updated to make sure that Albertans have the same kind of rights and protection in the workplace that are enjoyed by other Canadians," McGowan said.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says "the deck has been stacked" against Alberta workers for decades. (Alberta Federation of Labour )

Nearing the halfway point of its mandate, the NDP government has been studying the Alberta Employment Standards Code, the Labour Relations Code, and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

And although there have been amendments over the years, some labour laws have remained untouched since 1976.

Bob Barnetson, an associate professor of labour relations at Athabasca University, says there are key areas on the government's radar that, if changed, would make it easier to organize unions and land a first contract.

Barnetson says Alberta has among "the most regressive labour laws" in Canada.

He says bringing in what's known as "first-contract legislation" and a "card check" system of certifying a union would lead to more organized workplaces in Alberta.

First contract, or first-arbitration legislation, would impose a first contract through arbitration, if a contract couldn't be reached through bargaining, according to Barnetson.

Alberta law needs to be updated to make sure thatAlbertanshave the same kind of rights and protection in the workplace that are enjoyed by other Canadians.- Gil McGowan, President, Alberta Federation of Labour

"It sounds far more Draconian than it actually is," Barnetson says, adding that the existence of legislation is an incentive for employers to work through the process to reach a collective agreement.

A "card check" system of forming a union requires employees to simply sign a card or petition. The current system in Alberta requires a mandated follow-up vote by members 10 days after registering with the Alberta Labour Relations Board.  

"The delay that goes on between applying and having the vote gives the employer the time to terrorize the bargaining unit and put a chill on the organizing drive," Barnetson says.

"When you go from card check to voting, certification applications drop by half and there's a significant drop in the success rate."

The Wildrose Opposition is cautioning the provincial government  to consult widely before adopting any new rules.

The government faced a huge backlash when it introduced Bill 6, the bill to extend workplace safety requirements to farm employees, noted Glenn van Dijken, the Wildrose labour and jobs critic.

"The introduction of Bill 6 came through without proper consultation, and look at the uproar that came because of that," van Dijken said.

He said he would be especially concerned if the government makes it easier for employees to form a union, without needing a ratification vote.

"I think what has to be understood is the workers' right to work needs to be protected also.

"Whenever we move forward with systems and procedures that possibly don't give the workers
an opportunity to understand all of the ramifications with signing a card, we have to be careful with that."

Amber Ruddy, director of provincial affairs for the CFIB, says it's not the time to be layering on new regulations for small business. (CFIB)

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) says although its members support balanced labour laws, it wants to participate in any discussion before changes are made.

Amber Ruddy, director of provincial affairs for the CFIB in Calgary, says if the government is considering a "modernization" of labour laws, they should be considered "thoughtfully and thoroughly."

With 10,000 small and medium-sized employers, Ruddy says most don't have the benefit of administrative support or human resource departments to adjust to new rules or regulations.

"If there are significant changes to any areas, vacation allowances, paid leave, any further requirements, we'd want to see those proposals come forward right away and have small business owners weigh in," Ruddy said.

Many businesses are still struggling in a fragile economy, she added. 

"It's not a great time to be layering on new costs and new regulations," Ruddy said.

If the government does want to bring in "progressive" changes, it will face pushback, McGowan says.

"There's no doubt that right-wingers and some in the employer community will claim that the sky is falling," he said.

'Work life in Alberta has changed a lot'

Labour Minister Christina Gray said in an emailed statement she is committed to reviewing Alberta's labour laws to ensure they reflect today's workplace, but declined to specify what changes are coming.

"Albertans deserve modern, fair and family-friendly workplaces," Gray said.

"In some cases, Alberta's labour legislation has not been reviewed in decades. The nature of work life in Alberta has changed a lot in that time."

A report reviewing Alberta's Workers' Compensation Board is expected this spring.

The next session of the legislature begins March 2, with the introduction of a new budget sometime in March.

Labour Minister Christina Gray is considering updating Alberta labour laws, but hasn't indicated when change is coming (CBC)