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Don't look for dramatic change to Alberta labour laws in revisions NDP will likely introduce this week

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Christina Gray

Alberta's New Democratic Party Government is expected to introduce changes to the province's main labour relations laws this week, quite possibly on Wednesday.

Naturally enough, right-wing politicians and special interest groups have been squawking about this since the process for changing the Alberta Labour Relations Code and the Employment Standards Code was announced by Labour Minister Christina Gray in mid-March.

Conservative politicians have been trying in their usual fashion to create the impression Premier Rachel Notley's government is in the pocket of "Big Labour" -- although, in Alberta's case, it would probably be more accurate to say "Not-so-big Labour," seeing as the percentage of unionized employees in this province is the lowest in Canada. Whether or not labour has much influence over the government remains an open question.

Lobbies for businesses that have benefitted for years from the absence of due process and fairness in Alberta labour law compared with other jurisdictions complain that "now is not the time" for change, the economy being in the state it is. Actually, the economy is improving considerably, thanks in significant part to the way Ms. Notley's government has responded to the recession, so this line of argument is due to change any time now.

Still, the opponents of changing Alberta's weak and unfair labour laws, whatever argument they happen to be using at the moment, do sound half-hearted about this. They're just not getting their knickers in a twist the way they did over, say, the idea of a $15 minimum wage, which we are still on track to see in Alberta, or the loss of their easy access to temporary foreign workers.

I suspect this is because they have concluded the changes the NDP is likely to implement will be modest and not all that painful from their perspective.

They've barely even claimed the changes will kill jobs (there's no evidence anywhere, ever, that this actually happens) or that fairer labour laws practiced elsewhere for decades are a dangerous left-wing experiment (although I expect we'll hear that once the details are published, no matter how conservative the changes are).

While the Notley Government runs a remarkably tight ship and very little has leaked about what is likely to be in the legislation, it seems certain change here in Alberta will not be as sweeping as that contemplated by Ontario's Liberal government.

I doubt we'll see in Alberta, for example, a blanket ban on the use of replacement workers during strikes, let alone making it possible for employees of franchise operations to unionize or allowing domestic workers employed in private homes to join unions, all of which are on the table in Ontario.

Unsurprisingly, exactly the same arguments for keeping Ontario labour law the way it is now are being advanced by exactly the same groups arguing here that Alberta labour laws ought not to be made more like Ontario's old ones.

We will likely see fairly technical changes to the Employment Standards Code, which sets minimum standards for employment relationships on non-union worksites. There will be a few more significant improvements to the Labour Relations Code, which has not been changed since the 1980s and governs working relationships in unionized worksites. But they will likely only bring it into line with labour legislation elsewhere in Canada.

The review of the Labour Relations Code was led by Andrew Sims, a respected labour lawyer and mediator, who is held in high regard by unions and employers alike.

Notwithstanding Alberta Progressive Conservative Leader Jason Kenney's bluster about changing every law brought in by the NDP, this is just the kind of thing likely to be left alone by future governments of any stripe, in large part because the courts have already mandated many of the changes being contemplated by the NDP and because they work well elsewhere.

For example, I expect Alberta to include first-contract compulsory arbitration rules in its new legislation, to force companies to obey the law when they're negotiating first collective agreements. Ontario has had the same rule under a variety of governments since the 1980s.

Perhaps we'll also see a few meaningful penalties for employers who ignore their legal responsibility to bargain in good faith, or who deprive their non-union employees of their legal rights or the money they're owed.

But don't look for radical change, because you're not likely to see it in the revisions the NDP brings forward -- although this is sure to disillusion some of the New Democrats' most ardent supporters.

Image: Government of Alberta/Chris Schwarz

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

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