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Few hints about coming NDP workplace law reform in minister's speech to Alberta Federation of Labour

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Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray (Photo: Dave Cournoyer)

As you might expect, Labour Minister Christina Gray got a very warm welcome from delegates to the Alberta Federation of Labour's convention at Edmonton's EXPO Centre yesterday afternoon.

But if anyone among the 300 or so union activists in the room at the end of the first day of the four-day biennial get-together had expected to get a clear picture from Gray about where Alberta's NDP Government is headed with its review of the province's labour laws, they were disappointed.

As she has since the beginning of the dual processes of reviewing the Alberta Employment Standards Code, which covers workplace relationships in non-union workplaces, and the Alberta Labour Relations Code, which does the same thing for unionized workplaces, Gray played the government's cards very close to her vest.

The process began two days before the Ides of March, which political leaders should know by now to beware, and will have to wrap up very soon if the government of Premier Rachel Notley is to produce legislation to reform the province's labour laws before it enters the pre-election "hot zone.”

Alberta's workplace laws haven't been significantly changed for about 30 years of Tory rule -- and not because they’re perfect! A short public consultation period, which mostly focused on fairly technical aspects of the Employment Standards Code, ended April 18.

"I will have more to say on the next steps in the next few weeks," was about all Gray had to say about the Labour Code review, which is being led by well-known labour lawyer and mediator Andrew Sims. It was naturally an intense focus of interest among many of the people at the AFL convention. "I ask for your patience on that front, and I promise I will have more to say in the near future," she added.

This is probably just as well. Because whatever Sims comes up with and Gray and her cabinet colleagues decide to move forward with, or not to, it's bound to anger some in the often cantankerous labour movement, members of which (including the author of this blog) have come to the process with a long list of fervently hoped-for policy changes.

By dropping no hints, Gray ensured her recitation of a broad range of already-implemented NDP policies generally popular with the labour movement -- including last year's controversial form safety legislation and restrictions on the use of temporary foreign workers -- would be well received, as indeed it was.

Of course, you could argue this merely puts off the day of reckoning -- not just among union supporters who have high hopes for the process and will be bitterly disappointed if it fails to meet their expectations, but among the usual suspects on the right who have been organizing a full-court press against any change to the most regressive labour laws in Canada.

That group argues that now is not the time, there being an economic downturn and all that. Of course, when times were booming and conservatives were in power, the same people argued that then was not the time because there was no need. Their preferred option is more study -- and after that more study still, until, they hope, the government changes.

So it's possible that this process may turn out to be one of those situations in which the only comforting conclusion left to the government in the aftermath is that they're on the right track because everyone is furious at them.

Earlier yesterday, AFL President Gil McGowan launched a publicity campaign called "Unstack the Deck," clearly designed to keep the pressure on the government to implement meaningful workplace law reform.

That is, as the AFL news release on the topic put it, to "update Alberta's Labour Code so that ensures Albertans can access their constitutional rights to join a union and bargain collectively, and to raise the basic floor of worker rights by implementing an Employment Standards Code that moves Alberta in to the Canadian mainstream."

"Generations of right-wing governments in Alberta have stacked the deck against working people in our province, leaving us with one-sided workplace rules that favour employers at the expense of employees," McGowan said, a claim that is very hard to seriously dispute.

Among the flaws with the province's current labour laws the AFL hopes the government will remedy are the ability of employers to threaten and intimidate employees between the time they ask a union to represent them and the certification vote, and the ease with which employers can invite in employer-friendly "sweetheart" unions to keep more effective and democratic unions out.

In addition, employers in Alberta face few meaningful penalties if they ignore their legal responsibility to bargain in good faith -- a particular problem when employees are negotiating a first collective agreement. This is a situation that the author of this blog has experienced first hand.

These and other common Alberta practices heavily tilt the metaphorical playing field in favour of employers.

For their part, anti-union employer groups, conservative parties and market-fundamentalist think tanks are feverishly forecasting that if the NDP review results in meaningful change similar to common practices in most provinces, the situation will be little short of apocalyptic. Conservative politicians are guaranteed to harp on the claim the NDP is in the pockets of "Big Labour."

The resulting rhetoric in the weeks to come is not likely to be particularly enlightening, no matter how mild the reforms brought forward by the NDP actually turn out to be.

A focus today at the AFL convention will be the International Day of Mourning for working people killed or injured on the job, an occasion traditionally marked on April 28.

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

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