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Why is Alberta launching an 'employee support program' for unionized workers?

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

The government of Alberta launched its promised "employee labour relations support program" yesterday. Apparently they'll not only tell you how to certify a union, they'll tell you how to decertify one too!

Busting a union used to be easier back in the days of the old Progressive Conservatives, who weren't really all that progressive themselves. Back then, all you had to do if you wanted to decertify a union was get it to try to negotiate a first contract!

Rachel Notley's NDP government fixed that legal problem, introducing labour laws including first-contract compulsory arbitration rules that dragged Alberta kicking and screaming into the middle of the last century.

Despite the fact the fact the NDP reforms were pretty weak tea -- real middle-of-the-road stuff by Canadian standards -- they were very upsetting to certain people in this province, and for that matter some outside of it.

I'm talking about militantly anti-union contractors, the fast-food industry, and the usual suspects in astro-turfing and think-tankery. Some of these folks were very generous contributors to the United Conservative cause. Accordingly, promises were made.

Among those promises was a pledge in the UCP election platform "to bring balance back to labour laws," which is code for making it harder for unions to organize and represent their members, since before the NDP came along Alberta had the most unbalanced labour laws in Canada.

Another was to "require the Labour Relations Board to provide legal support to all union workers in order to better understand and exercise their rights." Depending on what you take providing legal support to mean, this can be seen as being quite insulting to the hard-working members and employees of the Alberta Labour Relations Board, who already do their best to ensure union members understand and can exercise their rights.

In other words, Premier Jason Kenney promised his friends at the Merit Contractors, Restaurants Canada and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation -- all high-profile players in the Canadian axis of union busting -- that he'd roll back workers' rights in Alberta. This, of course, was part of his broader social conservative plan to make Alberta the '50s again.

The thing is, though, the three outfits named above don't just want it to be the '50s again -- they want it to be the 1850s!

Of course, this kind of promise may not be as easy to keep as it is to make on the campaign trail. The Supreme Court of Canada has spoken and Canadian working people now have a constitutional right to bargain collectively, so any rollback of union members' rights will have to meet a sterner test than what Restaurants Canada and the Fraser Institute think is reasonable.

Whatever you think of Kenney, though, it's obvious he's serious about being able to say "promise made, promise kept." If he can't, somebody's going to be in trouble.

What's more, if somebody at the labour board doesn't say "How can I help you bust your union?" when they pick up the phone, the generous members of the axis of union busting aren't going to be happy either!

Which is presumably where yesterday's press release and announcement by Labour Minister Jason Copping comes in.

"By launching the employee labour relations support program, we are keeping our promise to provide assistance to unionized workers in Alberta," Copping was quoted as saying in the stilted way favoured by anonymous press release writers. "This program is part of our commitment to restore balance in the workplace by giving workers access to factual information and, in some cases, supports or advice from a neutral source."

When you look at it, other than a quote certain to annoy the already neutral labour board, the government announcement was pretty anodyne.

What little information is found on the government web page isn't any different from what you would have been told if you'd just phoned the Labour Relations Board and asked them how to go about certifying a union -- or decertifying one.

But who am I to say the government of Alberta shouldn't have two departments doing exactly the same thing? I mean, as long as no one minds if I point out another one of those promises made by Kenney on the campaign trail was to cut "red tape."

It's right on the government's red tape reduction website: "If you've come across a government process that's too complex, takes too long, serves no purpose, or is duplicative or wasteful, we want to know about it." (Emphasis added, of course.)

So if you have nothing better to do this afternoon, why not contact the ministry of red tape reduction and let them know about the duplication over at the ministry of labour?

On the other hand, if you think the author of this blog is exhibiting un-Albertan tendencies by talking about working people's rights, you can report him to the House Un-Albertan Activities Committee at submissions@albertainquiry.ca.

This is Alberta, where the future is the '50s, and the opportunities to inform on your fellow citizens are growing every day!

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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