Edmonton

Alberta union leaders consider ignoring new legal restrictions on finances, picketing

Observers say the impasse could lead to a showdown between labour groups and the provincial government, both on the streets and in courtrooms.

CUPE Alberta president says law infringes on members' freedom of expression

Unifor national president Jerry Dias said Alberta members won't comply with new laws requiring each one to opt in to paying dues toward political activities. (CBC)

Some Alberta union leaders say they have no intention of complying with new legal restrictions introduced by the province's United Conservative Party government.

Observers say the impasse could lead to a showdown between labour groups and the government, both on the streets and in courtrooms.

"Jason Kenney will not have an impact on the activities of Unifor. Zero," union president Jerry Dias said last month. "As a matter of fact, the more foolish legislation he passes, the more eager I am to defy it."

CUPE Alberta president Rory Gill said a new law that requires unions to seek permission before establishing secondary pickets likely infringes on members' freedoms of expression and association.

That roadblock won't stop members from setting up secondary pickets when they want to show solidarity with other unions, he said.

At issue is the Restoring Balance in Alberta's Workplaces Act, passed last year by the Alberta legislature. The law is the first of its kind in Canada.

Once proclaimed, it will require unions to ask each member, every year, to opt into paying dues toward political or charitable causes, and other functions the government sees as non-essential.

Many Alberta unions say they're preparing to challenge the law in court once all sections are in force or a dispute arises.

"It's not intended to protect democratic principles," United Food and Commercial Workers 401 president Thomas Hesse said. "It's intended to be disruptive, to foment dissent, and to encumber unions so they can't operate."

Last year, Premier Jason Kenney gave the example of Unifor members upset with their union's stances against the expansion of pipelines and on Israel.

Justin Brattinga, acting press secretary for Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping, said Dias's defiance shows why the law is needed.

"We are giving workers the right to refuse having their union dues put toward political causes they do not support, and we encourage all unions to follow the law," he said.

Hesse said it's analogous to a citizen refusing to pay taxes because they don't like government policy.

The finance limits are the only sections of the law that remain unproclaimed.

Brattinga said the government is working on the regulations before the law can take effect. He would not give a timeline.

Until those regulations are released, the details of the rules and the penalties for breaking them are unknown.

Dias said nothing would deter Unifor from ignoring the new provisions, which he believes are unconstitutional.

Unions are democratic organizations, where local members elect representatives to guide their choices, he said.

The United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), which is in tense, public contract negotiations with the province, is taking a more cautious approach.

UNA second vice-president and former NDP MLA Cam Westhead said unions could potentially face decertification, fines or the suspension of the employers' collecting union dues if they run afoul of the law.

Members would have to vote on any such high-stakes decisions, he said.

"We know that this government certainly has a hate-on for unions, and anything's possible," Westhead said.

CUPE Alberta will leave it up to individual locals to decide how to comply with new dues rules, Gill said.

Athabasca University labour relations Prof. Jason Foster says if Alberta unions band together and refuse to comply with a new union financing law, the government will have far more difficulty enforcing it. (Submitted by Christina Louise Photography)

Jason Foster, an associate professor of labour relations at Athabasca University, thinks employers, who deduct dues from paycheques, are likely pushing back against the new red tape, delaying the regulations.

The government's ability to enforce the law will depend on the solidarity of unions in their resistance, he said.

"If the majority of the largest and most significant unions in the province have all said, 'We're not doing this,' the law falls. It just collapses under its own weight. There's no way you can enforce something when there's a mass disobedience to it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.

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