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Alberta finally moves, cautiously, toward reforming labour laws, more boldly to ban cash-for-blood transactions

Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray at March 13, 2017, news conference (David Climenhaga photo)

No sooner asked than answered, Alberta's NDP government announced a plan yesterday morning to consult with the public and the usual suspects on both sides of the labour relations aisle about the sorry state of Alberta's workplace laws.

Calling the fact Alberta’s labour laws haven’t been meaningfully updated since 1988 "staggering," Labour Minister Christina Gray used a news conference in the Legislature Building to announce a mercifully short consultation period.

The consultations will focus on the Alberta Labour Relations Code, the legislation that governs working relationships in unionized worksites, and the Employment Standards Code, the law that sets minimum standards for employment relationships on non-union worksites.

The whole consultation phase is supposed to be wrapped up by April 18.

So far, so good! Although, as was observed in this space yesterday, it's not entirely clear why we need to spend even a month studying policies like first contract compulsory arbitration for which there is an evident need and have been operating without problems in other provinces for decades.

There were certainly some good signs during Gray's news conference -- for example, she acknowledged openly that Alberta has badly fallen behind both the law in other provinces as well as decisions made by the courts in many aspects of labour relations, leaving us out of step with the rest of the country.

"Work life in Alberta has changed a lot over the last 30 years," the minister observed -- to which we can add a hearty no kidding! These have been three decades in which the whole shabby edifice of globalization, de-skilling, precarious work, institutionalized anti-unionism and other depredations of neoliberalism has taken deep root in Alberta and elsewhere on this continent.

Another good sign was the appointment of Edmonton labour lawyer Andrew Sims, respected by pretty well everyone in the field in this province. Sims has worked both for conservative and not-so-conservative governments on this file, and is well known as a mediator and arbitrator, and has managed to continue to be held in most everyone's esteem.

But there were also some not-so-good signs -- for example, there's still no timetable for getting any of this stuff signed off, let alone passed through the Legislature, and few hints of what actually might end up in legislation.

You can count on business groups, as also suggested here yesterday, to argue that you shouldn't fix what ain't broke, and to claim, furthermore, that not broken is a fair description of the state of Alberta's labour laws. That, of course, is baloney, but opponents are certain to try to stall for time in the hopes another election will be upon us with this essential job left undone.

The danger is that the NDP -- still spooked by the hysterical reaction to its farm-safety legislation last year -- will buy into this, giving the opposition time to gin up more anger.

I should pause here and declare my interest in this topic. I was one of the strikers in 1999 and 2000 at the Calgary Herald -- the folks Conrad Black described as "gangrenous limbs" who should be surgically lopped off -- and I saw for myself how Alberta's labour laws, and the lack of first-contract compulsory arbitration in particular, abetted an employer determined never to comply with its employees' legal right to be represented by a union.

I am also, paradoxically, grateful to his Lordship and his less lordly minions for saving me from the moribund daily newspaper business moments before it crumbled into dust -- more evidence of which we learned about just this past weekend.

Opponents of any change the NDP is likely to propose, I imagine, would be singing a different tune about the quality of Alberta's supposedly unbroken labour laws if there were a conservative government in the driver's seat in Edmonton. Then they would be crying for the nearly vertical labour relations playing field to be tilted even further in favour of employers.

Gray told the newser her goal, a laudable enough aim, is to ensure that Albertans are able not only go to work and contribute to the economy, but also to "care for themselves and their families."

She indicated the review will focus on hours of work, overtime, special leaves and collective bargaining rules. I'm going to assume that union organizing regulations are included under the last heading on that list.

She encouraged members of the public to complete a survey and provide their views through a website set up for this purpose -- work.alberta.ca/leg-review. If you're a veteran of an ugly strike in which the employer ignored your legal rights and got away with it, I'd strongly encourage you to take part.

This time, the submissions will not be published, a reasonable precaution to protect commenters favouring labour law reform from harassment by right-wing social media trolls.

NDP moves to ban unsavoury practice of selling blood for cash

Meanwhile, the government wasn’t fooling around at all yesterday when it took tough action banning private pay-for-plasma clinics and other commercial efforts to buy human blood in Alberta.

"Donating blood should not be viewed as a business venture, but as a public resource," Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said when she announced the introduction of the Voluntary Blood Donations Act.

So Albertans will be spared the unsavoury -- and sometimes unsafe -- practice of allowing corporations to offer $25 a pop to the most disadvantaged people in our society to sell their blood, presumably permitted in Saskatchewan by the same market-fundamentalist vampires who think you ought to be able to sell a kidney if you feel like it.

The act, introduced in the Legislature by the NDP, carries hefty penalties for individuals and corporations that pay donors for blood -- fines of up to $10,000 a day for a first offence and $50,000 a day for subsequent offences for individuals, and $100,000 and $500,000 daily for corporations.

The goal of the legislation, like laws in Ontario and Quebec and in line with the recommendations of the 1993 Royal Commission of Inquiry on the Blood System in Canada, is to prevent the province's voluntary blood donor pool from being depleted or put at risk from infected donors relying on donations for cash.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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