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Wildrosers and PCs act as if fighting the NDP's workplace fairness law is their hill to die on

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Dr. Doug Klein, Edmonton family physician, Dr. David Ryan, St. Albert family physician, and Minister of Labour, Christina Gray.

While legally very significant, from a technical point of view the comprehensive labour law reform introduced Thursday by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley's New Democratic Party Government is not particularly innovative or unusual.

Upon passage, Bill 17 will bring Alberta labour relations law as it pertains to unions into the late 20th Century and place it squarely in the middle of the Canadian legal mainstream.

If it seems wide-ranging, it is mainly because there is a lot to bring up to date -- Alberta's labour laws, which had come to be the most backward in the country through 44 years of Progressive Conservative rule, had barely been touched since 1988.

For non-union workplaces, the changes introduced to the Legislature by Labour Minister Christina Gray are a little more ambitious -- with an emphasis on fairness for working people reflected in the title of the Bill, the Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act.

But there's nothing much in the Bill mandating changes to the Employment Standards Code, which governs non-union workplaces, and the Labour Relations Code, which sets the rules for unionized worksites, that corporations and conservative parties aren't already living with quite comfortably in most Canadian provinces.

As Andrew Sims, the respected Edmonton labour lawyer and mediator hired by the government to lead its review of the Labour Code explained to media, "this is not a cutting-edge, lead-the-country reform. It is in most respects a bring-the-best-experiences-from-elsewhere to Alberta."

Indeed, on the union relations front, in the face of more radical reform proposed by the government of Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, conservatives and corporations in Ontario are screaming to retain the very same late-20th Century approach to labour law the NDP bill brings to Alberta for the first time.

Politically, however, it is quite another story. As they struggle to find a way to purge the better angels of their natures and merge into a single far-right Frankenparty, Alberta's two conservative Opposition parties seem to have picked the modest vision of this legislation as their hill to die on.

While they claim they don't have a problem with the leave provisions proposed by the government for the Employment Standards Code, they nevertheless seem willing to risk appearing to fight for the right of employers to fire mothers whose children are afflicted with serious illnesses, to make minimum-wage gas station clerks pay for fuel stolen in gas-n-dash robberies, to block maternity leave for new moms, to make children do dangerous jobs, to pay disabled employees less than the minimum wage, or to deny leave to women suffering from domestic violence in order to satisfy their antipathy to the right of working people to bargain collectively!

Presumably they have concluded that insisting employers retain the right to refuse to negotiate in good faith with unionized workers seeking a first collective agreement will resonate positively with the "severely normal" Albertans Ralph Klein used to call Martha and Henry.

They certainly acted like it yesterday when the 17 Wildrose Party and PC MLAs in the Legislature voted against the bill on first reading -- the symbolic introduction of a bill that is usually supported by all parties as a matter of routine and Parliamentary tradition.

The sole Liberal MLA in the Legislature, David Swann, and the only Alberta Party member, Greg Clark, voted with the government, and the bill passed first reading 44 to 17.

Opposition at this stage is unusual. It illustrates the antipathy for the legislation among Wildrosers and PCs alike -- politicians and parties heavily influenced by anti-union employer cartels, business lobbyists and market fundamentalist think tanks.

This, of course, will not be the way these politicians try to sell their opposition to tried and true workplace fairness rules being introduced by the NDP -- their rhetoric will be redolent with words like "freedom," "employee rights" and "union thugs."

They will try to portray as undemocratic a provision that means a secret-ballot vote will not be required if at least 65 per cent of the employees in a workplace verify their membership in a union. If between 40 and 65 per cent sign union cards, there must be a vote regardless.

Like the Harper government in the 2015 federal election, they will attempt to persuade voters the NDP is in the pocket of "Big Labour," and promise their base that they will repeal every single NDP law if they manage to return to power.

As political commentator Dave Cournoyer pointed out, however, the Opposition parties have no alternative policies beyond changing nothing.

It remains to be seen if this is overreaching or a line that voters will swallow.

In the mean time, Wildrose and PC MLAs face a dilemma:

With an NDP majority in government, the only way they can make a dramatic fight of this is to try to stall passage of Bill 17 in the Legislature, ensuring their arguments against it in debate are reported by mainstream media, which in Alberta is reliably sympathetic to conservative ideas, no matter how bad.

They might even tempt the government to impose closure, which they could then try to cast as arrogant and undemocratic.

But if they do that, they can't spend time at home in their ridings shoring up shaky support for their political amalgamation scheme with skeptical members of their own parties. If they are too successful, in other words, they could face trouble on another front.

While many labour activists will be disappointed that the Labour Relations Code changes didn't go as far as they hoped, most must now admit that the best should not become the enemy of the good.

This legislation ensures the rule of law will finally come to workplaces in Alberta, and benefits working families in significant ways. Despite its shortcomings, these are huge and historic steps forward.

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

Image: Flickr/Premier of Alberta

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