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Mixed reviews for Alberta bill to amend, update labour code

Russell Hixson
Mixed reviews for Alberta bill to amend, update labour code

Proposed amendments to Alberta’s Employment Standards and Labour Relations Codes are drawing mixed reaction from the province’s construction and labour community.

"Updates and improvements to Alberta’s labour legislation are long overdue. The proposed changes ensure Albertans have the same rights as other Canadians while also supporting a strong economy," said Christina Gray, Alberta minister of labour, in a statement.

"They respect the important balance of our labour relations system and will make our standards more family-friendly."

In addition to extending maternity benefits and guaranteeing job protection for new unpaid leaves, the Fair and Family-Friendly Workplaces Act would raise the minimum working age to 13 and introduce stronger enforcement, including administrative penalties when warranted for contraventions to the Employment Standards Code.

The bill would introduce access to first contract arbitration to assist parties in successful bargaining and improved dispute resolution methods under the Labour Relations Code. It would also simplify union certification and decertification processes.

According to the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), the new union certification process borrows from the Manitoba Labour Code, which uses a hybrid of card check and ballot votes. Under the Manitoba model, a union that demonstrates it has 65 per cent support from the bargaining unit will be certified. Should the union demonstrate lower levels of support but still higher than 40 per cent, the decision will be resolved by a vote.

The AFL states this model will better protect workers from employer intimidation during certification drives, although not as effectively as a more straight-forward card check system.

The Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) stated it is pleased the Alberta government heard its warning that now is not the time for radical labour code change, but it does have concerns with several of the proposed changes, especially card check certification.

"We recognize that there were all kinds of voices in this debate," said Paul de Jong, PCA president. "We do not believe that the proposed hybrid model of card-based certification improves the simplest, most basic right of all Canadians: to freely vote in a secret ballot. It’s a basic right that’s best left as is."

PCA also questioned why it’s necessary to inject more government into labour processes that have worked well in Alberta by mandating first contract arbitration and remote site access.

"Existing labour code provisions address these issues while respecting the rights of both management and labour," added de Jong. "Inserting government into the middle of those discussions creates uncertainty and that’s not the signal we want to send to investors."

PCA is urging government, management and labour not to lose sight of the big picture.

"International investors follow changes in the labour climate very closely, and their dollars follow their concerns. Albertans cannot afford to get caught up in regulatory wrangling when what Albertans really need are good, well-paying jobs," de Jong stated, adding PCA will be monitoring the progress of Bill 17.

The trade union community also had a mixed reaction to the bill.

"I am still digesting, but on first blush I believe that generally speaking the BTA (Building Trades of Alberta) affiliates are happy and supportive of the changes," said Warren Fraleigh, executive director of the Building Trades of Alberta. "Of course there was some disappointment that the issue of double breasting was not addressed but I understand that this is what the government felt it could get done at this time."

Double-breasting is a practice that enables unionized employers to ignore the obligations of their collective bargaining agreements and to operate non-union wherever possible. This is accomplished by creating a separate non-union or alternative union spin-off company.

The AFL called the bill an "unstacking" of the deck against working people in the province.

"Thirty years without change was too long. Today’s legislation was more than overdue. It will bring Alberta’s workplace legislation into the 21st century and bring us another step closer to the Canadian mainstream," said Gil McGowan, AFL president. "Bill 17 will give working Albertans an updated Employment Standards Code with some real teeth for enforcement, and a Labour Relations Code that further allows people to exercise their constitutional right to join unions and bargain collectively."

However, McGowan did have some criticisms.

"While this legislation makes many positive changes to Alberta’s workplace legislation, we are disappointed that the government didn’t put a stop to employers in the construction sector using shell companies to shirk their responsibilities under legally binding agreements with their workers; a practice commonly referred to as ‘double-breasting,’" he said.

The proposed changes in Bill 17 are the result of previous government reviews as well as consultations with Albertans, employers, business organizations, labour organizations, municipalities, academics and advocacy groups. More than 7,000 submissions were received. The proposals still have to be passed by the provincial government.

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