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Labour law in Alberta: If you want better policies, you're just going to have to elect better politicians

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Alberta labour minister Thomas Lukaszuk

Labour Day will soon be upon us, and Alberta's labour minister has been publicly musing about measures that Alberta might take to weaken unions further and cripple what's left of the rights of the province's working people.

That, of course, is pretty much par for the course out here in the New West, where labour rights taken for granted in most of the rest of Canada are basically a cruel fraud. It's the back-story that's more interesting.

The labour minister is a fellow named Thomas Lukaszuk, who in Alberta officially goes by the Orwellian title Minister of Employment and Immigration.

Lukaszuk is a bright guy who emigrated from Poland to Alberta as a child. He is probably best known for his terrific hair, which often resembles the flowing locks of Lord Greystoke, also known as Tarzan, King of the Apes.

For a while not so long ago, Lukazuk harboured dreams quite similar to those of his fictional counterpart, to wit, to be premier of Alberta and King of the Conservative Caucus. Alas, this alliterative ambition slipped from his grasp, and at the end of June Lukaszuk announced he was pulling out of the race he'd never really been in and adding his support to those other members of departing Premier Ed Stelmach's caucus who are backing front-runner Gary Mar.

Now, Lukaszuk is far from the worst offender in the Tory caucus -- indeed, he's often grumbled about within that exclusive conservative club as if he were some sort of parlour pink. Now and then he even comes out on the progressive side of an issue -- for example, threatening to toughen up Alberta's pathetic workplace safety standards.

But an Alberta Tory is an Alberta Tory, and you'd have to be smoking banana peels to imagine their default position is anything but anti-labour.

Regardless of that opinion, it is a fact that the loony-right Wildrose Alliance under Fraser Institute apparatchik Danielle Smith has been campaigning for "right-to-work" laws and other anti-union nostrums and trying to paint Mar as a faintly left-wing "wet." At the same time, several militantly anti-labour lobby groups have been using the Tory leadership campaign as a backdrop to campaign vigorously for similar policies.

One of these groups recently hired a high-priced Edmonton legal firm to produce an opinion that such laws could pass constitutional muster in Canada, notwithstanding the June 2007 Supreme Court ruling that read the right to bargain collectively into the fundamental rights protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This group would also like to ban spending by labour unions on anything but "labour relations" -- a transparent effort to "de-fund the left" -- although of course they envisage no such restrictions on corporate political donations.

So, as they also did recently with the idea of private health insurance, perhaps the Mar forces decided they needed to do something to improve their street credibility with the corporate right, and maybe the flow of corporate generosity as well.

At any rate, it's an undeniable fact that on Friday Lukaszuk was in the local media cheerfully commentating on a conveniently timed leak of information about the quiet discussions he's been holding with the militantly anti-union Merit Contractors Association.

The Merit Contractors and several other groups generally not seen as friends of the workingman have been calling specifically for a series of measures clearly designed to put construction trade unions out of business. Or, as the Edmonton Journal put it in its story about the minister's private chats, to amend parts of the Labour Relations Code that are "making Alberta companies uncompetitive."

Alberta unions reacted with shock, and not merely the pro forma kind -- seeing as the only union to be involved in this discussion turned out to be the Christian Labour Association of Canada, a group that Canadian Labour Congress President Ken Georgetti has called "an employer-dominated union" that "works hand in glove with construction employers."

Isn't it interesting how, as the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees put it in an open letter to Lukaszuk, the labour ministry wouldn't give them the time of day when they gathered 24,000 signatures in 2007 on a petition calling for such basic improvements in Alberta labour law as first-contract arbitration and automatic certification when more than half the employees in a workplace sign a union card? But, "behind closed doors, a small cadre of anti-union business insiders and major donors to the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party have secured a review of Alberta's labour legislation in the interest of making our laws more regressive."

The cranky AUPE letter added: "Your appointment of two lawyers, one with direct connections to the Conservative party and the other well-known for his anti-union beliefs, does nothing but reinforce that view."

Well, folks, get used to it. That's just the way it is here in Alberta, and increasingly in the rest of Canada too. And that's the way it will remain, no matter who leads the Tories, because those are the folks the Conservative party exists to serve.

That's why it's said here that AUPE -- which, in the interests of full disclosure, was for many years my employer -- ought to have put its money into getting progressive politicians elected rather than ineffective campaigns seeking technical legal changes that are unlikely to engage the imagination of the public.

If you want better policies, you're just going to have to elect better politicians from parties more sympathetic to the needs of working people. It really is as simple as that.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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