Edmonton Chamber of Commerce questions timing of NDP government's review of labour laws

The Alberta government must be careful with any changes to the province's labour laws or risk creating problems for the business community, warns the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.

'We don't understand why there would be this need for sweeping changes,' chamber CEO says

The Edmonton Chamber of Commerce wants to see extensive consultations before the Alberta government makes any changes to labour laws. (CBC)

The Alberta government must be careful with any changes to the province's labour laws or risk creating problems for the business community, warns the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber CEO Janet Riopel said even the slightest change could make it even more difficult for businesses. One change the government may consider is requiring employers to give workers paid time off for bereavement

"We've enjoyed a long period of labour peace, so we don't understand why there would be this need for sweeping changes," said Riopel.

"Right now, businesses are facing more costs, more regulations, increasing instability and uncertainty. These things keep layering on in a challenging economy."

Nearly two years into its mandate, the NDP government has been studying the Alberta Employment Standards Code, the Labour Relations Code, and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

A completed review of the Workers' Compensation Board is also expected in the spring.

Labour Minister Christina Gray said some outdated laws haven't been reviewed since the mid-70s.

"Albertans deserve modern, fair and family-friendly workplaces," Gray said Thursday in an email statement.

The labour department plans to consult with stakeholders over the next few weeks before any amendments to existing legislation are introduced. 
Edmonton Chamber of Commerce CEO Janet Riopel with Infrastructure Minister Brian Mason. (CBC)

As they have with previous governments, labour organizations are pushing for changes to what they say are "antiquated" laws, said Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.

Alberta's largest union, AUPE represents 91,000 workers, mostly provincial government employees. In the last 15 years, AUPE  has branched out to organize private workplaces in the long-term care sector. It's an organizational drive the union continues to explore, said Smith.

Changing the law to eliminate the need for ratification votes after a majority of workers have signed union cards would make it easier to organize workplaces, said Smith.

Even more helpful, said Smith, would be a ban on the use of "replacement workers," which he said tends to prolong strikes or lockouts.

Smith also wants the government to adopt "first contract" legislation. First contract, or first-arbitration legislation, would impose a first contract if a one couldn't be reached through collective  bargaining,

He said most  parts of Canada have had similar laws in place for years.

Current Alberta laws, written and adopted by successive Conservative governments, reflect the "needs and interests employers much more than they did unions," Smith said.

"I think they need to move fairly quickly on it," he said. "They're two years out from another election, these changes may take some time."

Janet Lane with the Canada West Foundation says changing labour laws may present an opportunity for employers and unions to work together. (supplied)

Evaluating and changing labour laws could present a new opportunity for employers facing a rapidly evolving work environment, said Janet Lane, director of the Centre for Human Capital Policy at the Canada West Foundation.

"Unions and employers don't have to be in an adversarial relationship," said Lane.

There's a move, especially in the construction industry, towards unions making things better both for their members and employers, Lane said.

"It's making [workers] safer, more productive, they're doing better work and there are less do-overs," said Lane, who is now working with a steel fabrication company and its union.

Lane said employees are better prepared before they take on dangerous tasks, such as working at high elevations.

"They're making sure they know what they're doing before they send them up there," Lane said noting the safety record of the company has improved as a result."