Tag Archives: Bill 17: The Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act

Labour Minister Christina Gray. Photo from premierofalberta on Flickr.

NDP finally introduce their Labour Law modernization bill

Labour Minister Christina Gray introduced Bill 17, the Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act, into the Legislative Assembly today. This bill includes long-awaited reforms to modernize Alberta’s Labour Code and Employment Standards Code. Some parts of Alberta’s labour laws have remained untouched since the 1970s.

The 249-page bill includes a wide-range of amendments from improving maternity leave and compassionate care leave to extending parental leave from 37 weeks to 52 weeks to guaranteeing job protection for new unpaid leaves to simplifying union certification and decertification processes.

Well-respected labour lawyer Andrew Sims, who was hired by the government to work on the reforms, described the changes in Bill 17 as moderate and middle of the road. “This is not a cutting-edge, lead-the-country reform,” Sims told reporters. “It is in most respects a bring-the-best-experiences-from-elsewhere to Alberta.” This would appear to fit with the New Democratic Party‘s shift in adopting more centrist policies ahead of the next provincial election.

While the bill does not include changes some trade unions were advocating for, including banning “double breasting” and replacement workers during strikes, it does include some meaningful changes.

During her time as an opposition MLA, Premier Rachel Notley was a vocal advocate for first contract arbitration, which is included in the bill. First contract arbitration allows employers and unions to access dispute resolution methods under the Labour Relations Code that could avoid lengthy lock-outs or job action if negotiations for a first contract at newly unionized worksites are unsuccessful.

On the issue of card-check, which I briefly discussed yesterday, changes in Bill 17 require a secret ballot vote to take place at a job site where between 40 and 65 percent of workers have signed up to join a union. If more than 65 percent of workers have signed up, then a vote is not required.

You would think that a bill allowing workplace leave for parents looking after kids with long-term illness, leave for women suffering from domestic violence, and striking a provision that allowed persons with disabilities to be paid less than minimum wage would garner support from all sides of the Legislative Assembly. You would think.

But before debate on Bill 17 could even begin, Wildrose and Progressive Conservative MLAs, now essentially operating as the United Conservative Party caucus, voted against first reading of the bill. It is very unusual for MLAs to vote against a bill in first reading, as a vote in favour of first reading is needed to allow for debate on a bill to begin. In fact, a vote in favour of first reading is needed before MLAs and the public even get a chance to read the bill.

It is hard to describe their behaviour as anything but foolish partisanship. Wildrose and PC MLAs have made it clear they are unwilling to work with the NDP on many issues, but at a bare minimum they should be able to offer alternatives and meaningfully contribute to a debate.

But perhaps this is not surprising when you consider some of the last significant pieces of labour legislation passed by a Conservative government in Alberta. In 2015Jim Prentice‘s government repealed a law passed in 2013 that would have levelled fines of $500 and a prosecution within one year for any “person” who suggested that public sector employees strike or threaten to strike. The 2013 law was undemocratic and very likely unconstitutional.

At first glance, the NDP bill appears to bring some semblance of balance into labour law in Alberta while modernizing some workplace protections that are fairly standard in most other Canadian provinces.

The bulk of the changes included in the bill also reflect the NDP’s main narrative in 2017 of “making lives better for Albertans.” By voting against Bill 17 before it was even up for debate, Wildrose and PC MLAs continued to fulfill the NDP’s secondary narrative, “making life difficult for conservative MLAs.”

A screenshot of a Keep Alberta Working campaign video.

No, reforming Alberta’s Labour Laws will not kill democracy.

It won’t come as a surprise to many political watchers in Alberta that the most vocal critics of the NDP government’s yet to be announced reforms to Alberta’s outdated labour laws have strong ties to the province’s Conservative establishment.

Keep Alberta Working” is a campaign of the “Alberta Growth Initiative,” which is a coalition of the  Alberta Hotel and Lodging Association, the Canadian Meat Council, Restaurants Canada and the Alberta Enterprise Group. Unsurprisingly, the campaign has ties to Conservative lobbyists connected with United Conservative Party leadership candidate Jason Kenney.

According to publicly available information on the province’s Lobbyist Registry, New West Public Affairs, a company run by former Conservative Member of Parliament Monte Solberg, is the registered lobbyist for the Alberta Growth Initiative group. Solberg served alongside Kenney as a Reform and Canadian Alliance MP, and later in Prime Minster Stephen Harper‘s cabinet.

The media contact person listed on the press release announcing the “Keep Alberta Working” campaign is New West employee Sonia Kont, who is also president of the Progressive Conservative youth-wing and an ardent Kenney supporter. Also thrown into the mix is prolific tweeter Blaise Boehmer, who worked for Solberg’s company as a senior associate until leaving in 2016 to become Communications Director on Kenney’s leadership campaign.

The Keep Alberta Working campaign has been harshly critical of the NDP government’s plans to reform Alberta’s labour laws, some of which have remained untouched since the 1970s. The group was fair to criticize the relatively short consultation period the NDP government allowed for when preparing the reforms, but its claims that the NDP could destroy democracy by introducing a card-check system for union organizing are totally preposterous.

We won’t know what is included in the reforms until Bill 17, the Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act, is introduced into the Legislative Assembly by Labour Minister Christina Gray tomorrow. Depending on how it could be structured, a card-check system could make it harder for anti-union employers to block their employees from joining a union.

Looking to the debate ahead, the card-check issue could cause more political trouble for the NDP than they expect. As the NDP know from past experience as a tiny scrappy opposition party, it is much easier for the opposition to cast a government as heavy-handed and undemocratic than it is for a government to explain detailed public policy in a 15 second soundbite.

But there is little evidence that any reforms to Alberta’s labour laws will lead employees of the companies represented by these groups to stampede into the closest union recruitment office.

It’s not really surprising that key Conservative politicos are at, or close to, the centre of a campaign to oppose reforms to Alberta’s outdated labour laws, but the connections to Kenney and his leadership bid are worth noting.

So, when you hear this group’s criticism of the NDP’s labour law reforms tomorrow, consider the source. Also remember that while the changes might be described as catastrophic or disastrous by corporate-funded lobby groups, the changes included in Bill 17 might not be dramatic enough for some traditional NDP supporters on the political left.