Alberta Politics

Threatening to strike in Alberta? Under Bill 45, that’s a paddlin.

Jasper Beardly explains the Redford Government’s Bill 45: “Threatening to strike? That’s a paddlin’. Talking about going on strike? That’s a paddlin’.”

In their rush to pass anti-labour laws that would force the province’s largest union into a new contract and increase penalties public sector unions that enter illegal strikes, could Premier Alison Redford‘s Government also be infringing on the free speech rights of ordinary Albertans?

Athabasca University professor Bob Barnetson, in a recent blog post, expressed concern about many of the “chilling” aspects of Bill 45: Public Sector Services Continuation Act, including an issue of free speech.

Section 4(4): “No person shall counsel a person to contravene subsection (1) or (2) or impede or impair a person from refusing to contravene subsection (1) or (2).

Section 18(d): in the case of a person to whom or an organization to which none of the clauses (a), (b), or (c) applies, to a fine of $500 each day or partial days on whihc the offence occurs or continues.

Alberta Legislature Building Alison Redford
More than 700 Albertans gathered outside the Legislative Assembly to protest the Redford Government’s anti-labour laws.

According to Bill 45, any “person” who suggests that public sector employees strike or threaten to strike could be fined $500 and prosecuted within one year. The bill vaguely defines a “person” as someone who is not a government employee or trade union official, meaning that the $500 fine and prosecution could arguably apply to newspaper reporters, columnists, bloggers, or just ordinary Albertans who publicly suggest that unionized government employees participate in an illegal strike or consider taking illegal strike action.

The addition of the term”strike threat,” a new concept introduced in this bill, is both vague and open to interpretation and it is not unimaginable that the government could use the clause to punish public sector unions in the event of conflict or disagreement.

Dr. Barnetson suggests that because free speech is protected by Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is unlikely that these sections the Redford Government’s Bill 45 would survive a challenge to the Supreme Court of Canada. Why would the government introduce a law that they must know is vulnerable to a constitutional challenge?

16(1) If the Minister or a delegate appointed under the regulations is of the opinion that an employee has contravened section 4(1), (2) or (4), the Minister or delegate may, by notice in writing served on the employee, require the employee to pay to the Crown an administrative penalty in the amount determined in accordance with this section and the regulations and set out in the notice.

Section 16(1) of Bill 45, appears give significant powers to the Minister of Human Services  to issue fines to government employees if there has even been a hint of discussion about an illegal strike or strike threat. The prohibitions in this bill are vague, subjective, and place Alberta’s public servants in a position where their freedom of speech is limited.

If Bill 45 becomes law, could the Minister of Human Services issue a fine to a government employee for posting a comment on his or her personal Twitter account or Facebook page that is perceived as a “strike threat?”

If passed into law, Bill 45 would apply to employees of the provincial government and its agencies, Alberta Health Services employees and employees in approved hospitals, employees of ambulance operators, Non-academic staff in post-secondary institutions, and firefighters.

When Bill 45 was initially introduced, Human Services Minister Dave Hancock made clear that he wanted the Assembly to pass this bill in a short 48 hour period, making it law by the weekend. Facing two days of large protests outside the Legislature Building, the Redford Government has abandoned its plans to ram the bill through in 48 hours, opting instead to begin debate on the bill in the Assembly early next week.