By Cole Rockarts
On Wednesday, July 29, Alberta’s United Conservative Party government passed the Restoring Balance in Alberta’s Workplaces Act, which aims to control how union dues can finance political activities and legislate restrictions on where unions can picket. The bill claims it will save employers $100 million dollars per year by “reducing red tape”, and enhancing worker “choice” and “promote fairness and productivity”.
Since the government was elected in 2019, Premier Jason Kenney has steadily chipped away at the rights of working people and labour unions, slashing the minimum wage, cutting health and safety standards and laying off tens of thousands of workers across a variety of sectors. Now, the government has declared a war on workers.
The Bill has several damaging implications for workers, and allows for the government to be able to direct the Labour Relations Board to suspend dues checkoff for up to six months during an illegal strike. Additionally, Alberta would be the first province to have union members have to opt-in to having some of their dues go to political activities. Bill 32 will also bring in changes to the Employment Standards Act and Labour Relations Code. Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping stated that the Bill will “help businesses save time and money, letting them focus on getting Albertans back to work while protecting workers”.
In 2018, the NDP made changes to the Labour Relations Code, legislation that had been unchanged for 30 years. The amendments brought forward improvements to union certification, first-contract legislation, and shifted the burden of proof from workers to employers regarding unfair labour practices.
Bill 32 puts restrictions on guaranteed mandatory first contract arbitration, certification and remedial certifications. With the passing of this legislation, it makes the process for union certification longer, extending it to resolution within six months. As many organizers know, this gives employers extra time to commit unfair labour practices and undermines the fundamental right to organize in Alberta. Similarly, it makes remedial certification harder to access for workers who experience unfair labour practices (such as firings and interference in organizing drives) at the hands of bosses.
In 2008, CLAC worked with employers to ensure that open periods that allow workers to change unions were closed. A year later in Firestone  Alta. L.R.B.R. 134, the Alberta Labour Relations Board ruled that this violated the rights of workers to choose their representation. CLAC has continued the government to change the Labour Relations Code and overturn the Firestone decision. While the Firestone decision ended 30 years of abusive practice, there were no negative consequences to employers that engaged in union busting drives for those wanting to decertify from CLAC and switch to a real union. Bill 32 amends the Code to allow for the closure of an open period by renewing collective agreements early, and prevents workers from voting to change unions, which can only happen during a specified period.
Labour Rights Under Attack
Bill 32 directly attacks unions’ abilities to support political campaigns and causes, from donating to charities to running campaigns for the minimum wage and public health care. Along with the changes to unions, the bill also makes several changes for non unionized workers, including changing the rules for payroll, termination and holiday pay. It also expands the jobs that 13 and 14 year olds can do without requiring a permit, as well as pay them the two-tiered youth minimum wage rollback that the UCP passed in June.
One of the most concerning aspects of the bill is that workers are now forced to opt-in to pay the portion of union dues that go towards funding political action. Bill 23 has made Alberta the only province in Canada to restrict the ability of unions to raise public awareness and campaign on issues that affect the lives of all workers, from health care and child care campaigns to the fight for a higher minimum wage.
The opt-in clause now requires workers in a bargaining unit must elect or opt-in before dues are collected or used for political activities. It divides dues into two categories: Category A, which covers things such as funding social causes and issues, donating to charities or NGOs, organizations or groups affiliated with or supportive of a political party (such as labour councils and the Alberta Federation of Labour), and ‘any other activities prescribed by the regulations’. Category B covers activities under the Labour Relations Code, collective bargaining, activities that relate to representation of members and activities that do not fall within other categories.
The form and timing of opt-in dues processes will also be determined by regulations. There will likely be an attempt by the provincial government to try and have unions put more expenses in category A, and there is expected to be ongoing legal disputes about allocations.
The omnibus bill also puts limitations on pickets and secondary pickets. The bill attacks workers’ freedom of expression and assembly by legislating restrictions on where unions are allowed to picket and forcing them to apply to the Alberta Labour Relations Board for permission to picket. Further, picketing is ‘deemed wrongful’ when it obstructs or impedes a person from crossing a picket line which fundamentally contradicts the efficacy of strikes, and undermines the right to strike and workplace organizing as a whole.
26 unions and the Alberta Federation of Labour are signing onto a legal challenge on the grounds that the bill is unconstitutional and interferes with union members’ right to association and freedom of expression.
This is not just about Bill 32, but about broadly limiting the right to all forms of dissent and protest. After the passage of Bill 1, which imposes harsh penalties for protestors shutting down or blocking critical infrastructure, including pipelines and railways. Bill 1 has also been met with a constitutional challenge from organized labour.
But a legal challenge alone will not stop the legislation before it wreaks havoc on labour organizations and limits the power of union and non-union members to organize in their workplaces. The impact of Bill 32 won’t be fully understandable until regulations are made, which is expected in September.
Over the past several months, Alberta workers have seen hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to post-secondary education, steps taken towards the privatization of health care through Bill 30 and tens of thousands of layoffs to a range of sectors. Bill 32 is an existential threat to unions throughout the province, and simultaneously offers unions in Alberta the opportunity to organize in ways they never have before.
Employers are taking advantage of the austerity that the provincial government is imposing on workers across Alberta. Conservative governments and their austerity wish lists will not stop at the cuts, attacks on collective bargaining, and working towards destroying the public sector unless there is an organized resistance from workers.
What workers and unions can do now is organize. The only thing that the UCP and it’s corporate allies will be threatened by is their bottom line. Thus, the only effective mobilization that the government will listen to is a growing number of work stoppages and successful (all out) strikes across the province. Any union that expects to survive the Kenney administration has to invest its energy, labour, and money into strike funds and doing the time consuming work of educating members in the power of taking their workplaces into their own hands. After Janus in the U.S., thousands of workers began to mobilize their membership and set off a series of strike waves in education, healthcare, and beyond. Alberta has been here before – the only question now is if we are going to be doomed to repeat history, or take action.