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Mysterious 2011 review of Alberta Labour Code explained -- corporate influence, of course!

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Back in the summer of 2011, as Ed Stelmach's reign as premier of Alberta ground toward its inevitable terminal moment, then-employment-minister Thomas Lukaszuk sent around a letter advising stakeholders he was about to commence a review of the Alberta Labour Code.

It had to be done, said the minister responsible for the province's labour portfolio, "to ensure we remain competitive over the longer term."

Major players in Alberta's labour movement found this development disquieting, not because the Code doesn't need revising, but because no one in labour had any idea how such a thought had come to enter the minister's normally relatively empty headspace.

No one connected with a labour union had been given a hint anything was up -- with the sole exception, it turned out, of the Christian Labour Association of Canada, a group condemned in labour circles as an employer-dominated union that works hand in glove with construction employers.

It also seemed like an odd time to launch a review, with the government about to change leaders. Moreover, the make-up of the two-member review panel hardly inspired confidence -- a lawyer with tight connections to the Progressive Conservative government and another known for his anti-union views.

So union leaders could be forgiven for wondering what the heck was happening.

Now we know -- thanks to some assiduous research work by the Alberta Federation of Labour and and some investigative journalism undertaken by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Yesterday morning, CBC Edmonton investigative reporter Charles Rusnell revealed a tangled web of unregistered lobbying, donations to the Progressive Conservative government and Premier Alison Redford's leadership campaign, and behavior by a well-connected coalition of construction companies and anti-union contractors that one lawyer quoted by the CBC suggested "crosses the line in the Criminal Code bribery provisions."

Regardless of the merits of that claim, for sure substantial donations were made to the PCs and there was intense lobbying by the group, made up of companies and individuals who with one exception were not registered as lobbyists.

It appears quite clear from the correspondence uncovered by the AFL researcher that members of the group, which termed itself the "Construction Competitiveness Coalition," tried to tie generous support of the PC Party to specific changes in legislation, namely the Labour Code, desired by member companies.

Many of the changes the CCC wanted were clearly designed to put construction trade unions out of business. The Code as currently written, they claimed at the time, was "making Alberta companies uncompetitive," which likely explains where Lukaszuk got his breezy explanation for his actions.

The evidence reported by the CBC yesterday also suggests several influential government members -- including then-premier Stelmach, Premier Redford and Lukaszuk -- enthusiastically entertained the CCC's lobbying efforts, although they must have known only one member, the virulently anti-union Merit Contractors, was registered as a lobbyist.

In fairness, Alberta's lobbying law is subject to interpretation in places, allowing unregistered lobbyists 100 unregulated hours as freebies. But it is known that Redford's leadership campaign received donations of $26,900 from CCC members, and all leadership campaigns received donations of at least $121,800 from the group's members. The PC Party got $186,750 in donations from the anti-union coalition between 2009 and last year.

CCC members received close to $1 billion in government contracts and grants over a six-year period.

By the 2012 election campaign, many of the CCC's ideas had made it into the PC Party's official election platform, where they can be found on page 30.

Less than two months later, when Redford was premier and the CCC was growing dissatisfied at the pace of the changes it was looking for, Tom Brown, a senior vice-president of Ledcor, one of the companies in the CCC, fired off a sharp note to the executive director of Premier Redford's Calgary office.

In it, Brown said of his company and PCL Construction, "We both made major contributions to Ms. Redford's leadership campaign and to the PCs' election campaign fund (in Ledcor's case up to the legislated maximum). Other members of our Coalition were also significant supporters of both the Premier and the PC Party. … there will be huge disappointment and possibly misgivings within our Coalition if I do not have something concrete to report next week." (Italics added by me.)

For all intents and purposes, it sounds very much as if Alberta's anti-union construction companies demanded, and very nearly got, the chance to write their own governing legislation!

As Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason noted at a news conference with AFL President Gil McGowan yesterday, "what these letters and emails show is that the PCs have been more than willing to collude on changing laws that affect Alberta workers and their families with the usual group of funders, friends and insiders.

"The premier accepted significant donations from Merit and the rest of this coalition during the PC leadership race and the last election," Mason said. "It's very clear they weren't asking for changes to the Labour Code -- they were expecting them."

By the way, Redford's office fought hard to keep several pages of this correspondence secret -- but was overruled by the province's privacy commission when the AFL appealed.

The AFL has called for the review put into motion by Lukaszuk in 2011 to be scrapped immediately as it is obviously hopelessly tainted.

The labour umbrella organization also demanded a full investigation of the CCC and the government under the Conflict of Interest Act and the Lobbyists Act.

Observers of the continuing travails of Redford's government can only shake their heads and wonder, "What next?"

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

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