Rachel Notley & friends at last year's EDLC Labour Day BBQ (Photo: David Climenhaga)

Today is Labour Day, which in recent years has become a traditional season for attacks on the rights of working people, in particular their right to bargain collectively.

These most often take two forms:

The most common is publication of misleading analyses of the supposed harmful impacts of laws that protect working people’s rights, produced by market-fundamentalist think tanks and reprinted uncritically by mainstream media, often with accompanying news stories and supportive screeds by reliably conservative staff columnists.

Some of these will probably appear today in your local daily newspaper, assuming, of course, that it still has a Monday edition.

The second is in the form of calls by so-called conservative politicians — who are in fact neoliberal politicians, a term the meaning of which we can all now agree upon — for laws that restrict the rights of working people, especially their right to bargain collectively.

This is likely to be especially true in a year like the one we are now living through, in which here in Alberta various neoliberal politicians are competing to lead a conservative political party, in this case a United Conservative Party.

In the past, I have characterized this blitz of vilification of unions and the important work they do in society as a kind of 48-hour hate, truly Orwellian in the use of terminology meant to convey the perfect opposite of what the words mean on their face.

Still, as it happens, the news is not particularly bad in Alberta in 2017, owing to the presence of a New Democratic Party government in office, however tenuously.

As Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, wrote in a rare pro-labour opinion piece in the Edmonton Journal Saturday, recent changes to the Alberta Labour Code have made it “a little easier” for working people in this province “to exercise their constitutional right to join a union and bargain collectively with their employers.”

The emphasis should be on the words a little easier. Because the changes introduced into law by the government of Premier Rachel Notley three months ago are pretty tame, and do not go as far as they could to protect the fundamental right of working people to associate and bargain collectively.

Just the same, passage of the Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act at 2 a.m. on June 6 was significant, if only because it finally dragged Alberta labour law into the 20th Century — only 17 years into the 21st!

The act brought common practices in other provinces that have worked well for decades into use in Alberta, where labour-relations laws had come to be the most backward in the country under successive Progressive Conservative governments.

Changes brought forward by Labour Minister Christina Gray included introduction of first-collective-agreement compulsory arbitration, a mechanism for requiring employers to negotiate in good faith with newly unionized employees seeking a first contract, and 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.

The changes to legal protections provided by the province for non-union workers were more ambitions — which is not a defence of past Conservative governments, but recognition of how far behind the legal rights of non-union workers in Alberta had fallen.

These included an extra week of job protection for maternity leave, to 16 weeks, protected leave for parents to look after sick children, and new requirements to ensure employees are compensated when they work overtime.

Despite the dire predictions and screeches of protest from business owners’ collective organizations and conservative politicians, there was little in the bill that corporations and conservative parties aren’t already living with quite comfortably in most Canadian provinces.

As McGowan reminded us in his op-ed, “The people who light their hair on fire about unions are the same ones who said tax cuts for the rich would bring prosperity for everyone (instead, they brought rising inequality); that budget cuts could end recessions (instead, they ended up making them worse) and that de-regulation would strengthen the economy (instead, it brought us things like the global financial crisis of 2008).”

Elsewhere things are not so good. The march of “right to work” laws and other right-wing economic nostrums continues across the United States, while President Donald Trump enacts measures in the name of American workers that in reality are meant to help only American billionaires.

Here in Alberta, conservative politicians vow to deliver the same Trumpian policies if they return to power — including eliminating most or all of the baby steps toward mainstream labour laws taken by the NDP.

Well, that’s a topic for another day.

This morning at 11:30, trade unionists from throughout the Edmonton area will gather for the 28th year to serve burgers to anyone who needs a meal at Giovanni Caboto Park. The Edmonton and District Labour Council’s annual Labour Day BBQ, part of the union movement’s strong charitable tradition, is an activity that would be made illegal under the unconstitutional laws proposed by some conservatives.

Similar events will be happening in cities across Alberta and Canada.

Albertans can be proud we have taken small steps forward for all working people, including those without the benefit of a union to protect them. Come what may, we can protect those modest gains, at the ballot box, in the courts and in our workplaces.

We can be grateful too that Canada’s courts remain committed to the rights of working people, as for the most part does Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal federal government, even if UCP politicians in Alberta want to turn back the clock to the 19th Century.

So this Alberta Labour Day is different — we have something to celebrate. And that’s something to celebrate!

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...