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How about bringing Alberta's labour laws into the 20th century? (Never mind the 21st)

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Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray (Image: David Climenhaga)

The CBC says the province's businesses are "spooked."

The Chamber of Commerce is deeply worried by the prospect of "sweeping reforms." Naturally, the Chamber also says they're not necessary.

The National Post is so appalled it's talking about changes that would make "the province the most radical left-wing environment for businesses in the Western world.”

The changes in question, the Post continued, hyperventilating, "would go a long way toward ensuring that no foreign business would ever again invest in it."

We're talking about labour law reform. Stuff, to quote the CBC story, like "mandatory sick pay, shifting the threshold for overtime, boosting the minimum paid vacation, advance scheduling, and making it easier to join a union."

Talk about frightening the children! What next?

But if you're a member of Alberta's right-wing anger machine and you're contemplating launching a brisk tweet storm insulting Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley for instigating this outrage, hold your horses!

The premier in question whose government is thinking about these changes is named Kathleen Wynne. Her political affiliation is Liberal. And the province, of course, is Ontario.

Alberta is also thinking about modest labour law reforms, we're told. Then again maybe not...wait a bit, say government officials, including elected New Democrats. Something will be along eventually.

But unlike Ontario, which in the next few days is expected to reveal its labour law reform plans in a public document called the Changing Workplaces Review, there are very few hints about what Alberta’s NDP government actually plans to do, if anything.

When CBC Edmonton decided to publish a story last month suggesting something big is about to happen in Alberta -- they got interviews with the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (Gil McGowan thought it's about time we do something), an Athabasca University labour studies professor (Bob Barnetson said Alberta now has the most regressive labour laws in Canada), the Wildrose opposition's labour critic (Glenn van Dijken warned the backlash would be mighty, last year's farm safety brouhaha all over again), and a Canadian Federation of Independent Business spokesperson (Amber Ruddy argued a recession is not the time to burden businesses with new regulations).

But the NDP's Labour Minister? Christina Gray emailed the CBC a vague statement saying "Albertans deserve modern, fair and family-friendly workplaces." Were there any details? Apparently not.

Indeed, it's far from clear if the NDP has meaningful plans in this area at all, despite the fact Barnetson's statement is unquestionably true -- especially in that the province's current Tory-era labour legislation completely lacks any meaningful way to compel anti-union employers to obey the law and negotiate in good faith with newly formed unions.

Ontario already has first-contract compulsory arbitration rules in its old legislation, to force companies disinclined to obey the law to do so. So do most other Canadian jurisdictions. Ontario enacted its mandatory arbitration law more than 30 years ago, in 1986.

So will the NDP enact even that sensible and nearly universal reform? We have no idea.

One thing's a certainty, if they don't and they aren't re-elected, no future conservative government ever will -- and it will tell anyone who comes asking, "You couldn't even get that when your guys were in power" Whereas if they do, never mind the bluster of some conservatives, the likelihood is the changes would remain in place no matter who forms future governments. Mandatory first-contract arbitration is standard Canadian operating procedure, after all, and likely to be supported by the courts.

Meanwhile, back in Ontario, the Liberals appear to be poised to take responsible steps toward a modern labour relations legislative framework that goes well beyond the modest policy changes being considered by the NDP.

In Ontario, the labour movement was divided over the idea of co-operating with Premier Wynne's Liberals, which was seen as heresy in some staunchly NDP quarters, but supported by some major unions. For those that did support Wynne's re-election, it's hard to deny that it looks as if their strategy paid off.

This is something for Alberta's NDP to think about in a province where progressive parties have been kept out of power for generations despite wide support for many of their policy ideas because there were splits on the left and not on the right.

Yes, Alberta's NDP needs to avoid the mistake it made with its farm safety legislation and allow the opposition to set the narrative and frame it as an anti-farm, pro-union law -- it is neither. But they also need to bring labour law in this province it least into the 20th Century, even if they leave the 21st to Ontario’s Liberals. And they need to get over the too-cautious reaction to the farm-safety law, which clearly shook the party leadership when it was still figuring out how to wield power.

In other words, they ought not to forget who their supporters are, and they shouldn't create an opportunity to their left for another progressive party, perhaps one with a new leader looking for a way out of the political wilderness and the same name as Wynne's party.

As for opposition to labour law reform that takes into account the needs of real working people, including those stuck in the precarious globalized workplace of this neoliberal age, isn't it interesting how the arguments made against labour law reform by the usual suspects are always the same, no matter what's being proposed?

First, they call for more study. When that doesn't work, they suggest the idea might have merit, but not right now when the economy's so bad it can't afford it or so good it doesn't need it. Then they call the proposed change a dangerous left-wing ideological experiment. This claim is sure to be made even if it's a call for a law that’s been working smoothly elsewhere in Canada for three decades.

And when even that doesn't work, they claim it'll kill jobs and end investment. Funnily enough, that never actually seems to happen.

C’mon, Alberta. Let's act like we have an NDP government and get on with it! You know, like the Liberals in Ontario, who, despite bad polls and many flaws, might just get re-elected because of this.

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

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Image: David Climenhaga

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