The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) president Guy Smith said his union is agitating and educating its members in preparation for a “looming battle” with the provincial government.
Alberta’s unions — including AUPE, the United Nurses of Alberta, and Unifor — have roundly condemned a recent piece of provincial legislation that could threaten workers’ rights to picket and unions’ ability to engage in politics.
In early July, Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) government introduced Bill 32, the Restoring Balance in Alberta’s Workplaces Act. If passed, the legislation would require union members to opt in to paying any union dues that would be used for “political activities.”
“When unions use free speech rights to speak out against injustice, we’re standing up for all workers,” said Jerry Dias, Unifor national president in a statement.
In a press appearance, Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping said the legislation is in response to complaints from union members, and denied that the UCP is attempting to suppress political criticism from unions.
Bill 32 would also limit where and how workers are allowed to picket during a strike or lockout. Picketing at a secondary work site would not be allowed without permission from the Labour Relations Board. Crucially, workers would not be allowed to prevent or delay anyone from crossing a picket line, which Smith said would render picket lines ineffective.
The UCP said it is returning balance to employers and cutting the “red tape” of labour laws, citing changes made by the former NDP government.
Smith said that even under Rachel Notley’s NDP government, the labour laws did not go far enough for workers.
Bill 32 comes on the heels of the passing of another controversial labour law in Alberta. Introduced as Bill 1, the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, was passed on May 28.
That legislation was initially a response to railroad blockades set up by Indigenous demonstrators resisting pipeline construction on their land. The law prohibits any protest, blockade or picket from occurring at the site of what the province deems “essential infrastructure,” and has been criticized by unions for “criminalizing protest,” as Dias put it.
AUPE is in the middle of contract negotiations on behalf of its members employed by the province. Preliminary negotiations were stalled once the pandemic lockdown hit, but Smith said they will be evaluating whether they can return to the table in September.
rabble.ca spoke to Smith about what the labour environment is like in Alberta right now, how it’s changed his union’s activities, and what to expect in the coming months.
The following has been edited for clarity and length.
What has been the biggest challenge to labour rights in Alberta in recent months?
Quite honestly apart from a very aggressive and ideologically driven government that’s using the power of the state to really impact worker’s rights, the pandemic has also been an issue. Normally we would be having significant protests and info pickets and rallies around this [legislation]. But we’re also caught by the simple fact that there’s safety precautions. And, our members on the front lines are really focused on helping Albertans get through the pandemic. The government has used the countervail of the pandemic and the fact we’re all focused on that as front-line workers to put through some really egregious and damaging pieces of legislation in the last few weeks.
What legislation do you find the most concerning?
Bill 1 and Bill 32…Both of those combined do a number of things. Bill 1, we’ve actually filed a court challenge to that on constitutional grounds. It’s open to abuse of power in other areas such as restricting any gatherings outside any public facility or on any public thoroughfare, including sidewalks. When we protest or picket or strike it’s going to be outside our members’ workplaces, and that could be deemed illegal with the stroke of a pen. My position on that is we need to put that law to the test. Yes, we’ve got court action, but as we all know, that’s going to take a number of years. Even though we believe we’ll be successful, the damage will already be done. We need to prepare [our members] for the fact that the state is going to come down very hard on them when we eventually do take to the streets, which we will.
And then Bill 32 again restricts picketing activities, it denies the right to secondary picketing. It also says that when you’re on strike and you’re picketing, you’re not allowed to prevent anyone from crossing the picket line. Well, what’s the point of a picket line then, right? There’s a major part of Bill 32 which looks at having members have to opt in to a portion of their dues that go to political causes, and that’s very loosely defined and can be changed through regulation again at the stroke of a pen. We believe the fight for public services is a political fight, but it’s also attached to collective bargaining and all of the things we do as a union on behalf of our members. It’s going to affect unions, though probably other unions more than ours. We’re nonpartisan, we do not make any political contributions and plus, we are not affiliated to labour centrals like the Alberta Federation of Labour which are directly connected to the NDP. That seems to be the main target. But we do support social advocacy groups, so those could be impacted.
What does Bill 32 signal to you in terms of the UCP’s attitudes towards unions and workers?
Very clearly, the UCP is first of all criminalizing workers who take a stand in opposition to their policies, and then trying to choke off the financial resources needed to fight back. I’m sure Bill 32 will get tested in the courts as well, which is an appropriate way of dealing with it, but again the damage will be done long before the courts decide on these things. So it’s a full on attack on worker’s rights and on the organizations that represent workers being brought in at a time when we really don’t have the capability for safety reasons to fight back in a mass way.
We are spending a lot of time with our members phoning them one-to-one, having those discussions, and talking to them about the need to prepare for what is a fairly significant struggle with the government, particularly as it relates to collective bargaining for us as we go into fairly large rounds of negotiations with big employers including the government itself. I don’t know when it will come to a head, but it will.
What does this legislation mean for how your union conducts its work? Does it put you on the defence?
It actually emboldens us to fight even harder and to continue to agitate and educate our members on the serious impacts it has not just on their rights as workers, which is first and foremost the major issue. But it’s more about what this province is turning into. It really is adopting the worst of what you’d see in the U.S. and other right wing regimes that try to use the power of the state to take away basic fundamental rights. For a lot of members, that’s not their immediate concern, but at the same time, that resonates with them. I think it clarifies the need for resistance. There are a lot of good folks out there fighting on a number of key issues in this province, but at the end of the day it really will be the power of the working class that’s able to overcome this government. But [the UCP] will use every tool in their box to try and crush that dissent. That’s why I say when I say there’s a battle looming, I’m not trying to be hyperbolic. It will be a significant struggle like we’ve never seen in this province.
When you say there’s a looming battle, how do you see that playing out?
I can tell you we’ve spent the last year and a half building our members up for this battle, and we were well on the way to building the necessary capacity prior to the pandemic. That really changed the lay of the land for a number of reasons, but we’re continuing that work with our members.
I don’t know what the trigger will be. I know there’s a lot of anger and frustration among our members in a number of sectors. We’re already seeing cuts to post-secondary education, for example. We’re seeing attempts to privatize parts of government services. And there’s certainly very strong signals of privatizing a large chunk of the health-care system as well. Obviously, there is fear out there among workers. There’s no doubt about it. We’re trying to do some agitation and education and inoculation to organize them into taking that action. They’re up against not only the normal things that you’re up against in these kinds of struggles, but they’re up against a government that is being extremely authoritarian and is quite intimidating.
What kind of action will you be taking?
We are gearing our members for strike. We’ve held dozens of rallies and information pickets over the past year if not a bit more. They’re good but they don’t directly challenge the power structure. Workers withdrawing their labour will be the only power that’s going to have any influence. It concerns me when you see unions or other groups talking about ad campaigns. Those are good and they generate awareness, but at the end of the day, that’s not going to force the government to back down. It will only be through the collective power of workers taking strong action.
Chelsea Nash is rabble’s labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.