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Want to bust your Alberta union? Your government will give you one hour's free legal advice!

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Alberta Labour Minister Jason Copping. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

Credit where credit is due, the Kenney government's new Employee Labour Relations Support Program does answer questions from union members who write in and ask them.

Leastways, the nascent Bust-Your-Union Line that was announced by United Conservative Party Labour Minister Jason Copping on October 1 did respond to my query about how it was different from the Alberta Labour Relations Board, which has provided neutral information about labour relations matters to anyone who called its officials for as long as anyone can remember.

Still, it turns out this duplication of government services is not worthy of the attention of the Ministry of Red Tape. Who knew?

"The intent of the Employee Labour Relations Support Program is to give Albertans access to labour relations information, and in some cases, supports or advice," said an unsigned email response to my query.

"The Labour Relations Board manages day-to-day operations, and may answer questions primarily related to process of applications before the Board," the anonymous responder continued carefully. "The Employee Labour Relations Support Program may respond to a broader array of questions about the Labour Relations Code and other labour legislation in Alberta."

Really? Someone from the Labour Board would always help out most callers with any reasonable question in the past with neutral, factual information.

"In certain specialized cases, the Employee Labour Relations Support Program has the ability to refer individuals to speak with a lawyer," the anonymous responder went on, edging closer to the heart of the matter. "Referral will be determined on a case-by-case basis depending on the nature and complexity of the matter."

Responding to my follow-up questions about whether or not the government will be paying for this legal advice, and which lawyers might benefit from this new public subsidy, the response read as follows:

"In a few cases where the Employee Labour Relations Support Program refers an employee seeking information, supports and advice to a law firm, the Department of Labour and Immigration will cover the law firm's costs for up to one hour."

Interesting. I wonder where the budget for these legal fees will be coming from in these times of restraint?

These are boilerplate answers, it should be noted. Others of my acquaintance who asked similar questions received virtually identical responses.

"As the need for employees seeking legal information, support and advice is unknown, the Department conducted a limited request-for-proposal from several law firms," the disembodied responder said, beginning to wrap things up. "The Department plans to select two law firms initially and will reassess the need for legal supports once the program needs have been confirmed. We are unable to provide a list of successful law firms as the procurement and contracting is not completed." (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

In his October 1 news release, Copping described the effort as part of the UCP's "promise to provide assistance to unionized workers in Alberta."

"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," Copping continued.

Of course, we will know more about the neutrality of the advice to be provided when we know more about the law firms providing it. For that matter, how neutral any lawyer can be when properly representing a client is also a topic for contemplation, as is the question of whether the client in these circumstances would be the union member on the line or the Albertan government.

Also unclear is who pays if one hour isn't enough time to answer all of a caller's questions, and when the meter starts running.

The anonymous responder, perhaps growing suspicious about the nature of the questions, concluded: "If you have further questions about the program, please contact the Minister's Office."

Now get lost!

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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