Thomas Lukaszuk

Last weekend, Alberta Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk was in Edmonton’s Churchill Square enthusiastically demanding free speech and recognition of other fundamental rights for citizens of Ukraine.

Premier Alison Redford’s second in command told his listeners he recalled being in Kiev in 2004, observing the Orange Revolution: “Never again should there be a time in Ukraine that protests would have to be sparked in favour of democracy, but unfortunately that wasn’t so.”

Presumably his speechifying was well received.

But if the Polish-born Lukaszuk is so in favour of free speech and democracy in Eastern Europe, how come he’s attacking it in Alberta?

This is a reasonable question that should be answered by Lukaszuk, who is one of the principal architects behind the anti-union legislation now being rammed through the Legislature by the Alberta’s spineless Progressive Conservative caucus without a whinny of protest or principle.

Bills 45 and 46, after all, include an egregious attack on the free-speech rights of all Albertans, and make a mockery of the ideas of due process, free association and natural justice. As Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid, who I can tell you from personal experience is not exactly a rabid trade unionist, said yesterday: “It’s hard to imagine a more blatant violation of free speech.”

Indeed, if you’d tried a stunt like this in Kiev this week, you could have expected streets full of angry citizens armed with gasoline bombs, manning barricades and preparing for an illegal general strike.

Lukaszuk has his fingerprints all over the matched set of unconstitutional bills rammed through Legislature by the PC Party’s cowed and unprincipled backbenchers — laws that have also had better-behaved crowds of protesters braving the chill in the streets of Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge.

This is easy to forget because Finance Minister Doug Horner and Human Services Minister Dave Hancock, both of whose public images retain a few tattered shreds of respectability, have served as the human faces charged with making excuses for the excesses of Bills 45 and 46.

But of the lot, it was Lukaszuk who was best positioned to push forward his agenda as the chair of the secretive Public Sector Resource Committee, a little-known body that oversees the government’s direct and almost-direct negotiations with unionized civil servants and other public employees.

In the past, Lukaszuk has said the committee’s role is to impose uniformity on all public sector labour contracts. Revealingly, he told the Edmonton Sun a few days ago that the meaningless decision to “freeze” MLA salaries until after the next election at $156,311 plus generous benefits, in the words of the Sun’s reporter, “will give himself and the committee ‘the moral authority, in a way’ for continued negotiations with AUPE.”

Considering that the MLAs just got finished giving themselves a 71.5-per-cent pay raise last spring — and, no, that’s not a typo — that’s not much of a position of moral authority!

Lukaszuk, who is also advanced education minister in Redford’s cabinet, also told the Sun negotiated agreements “may not be ideal because they mean compromise” — although in the case of Bill 46, the government seems to have solved the problem of having to compromise when it comes to “negotiating” with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. That is to say, there are no negotiations, only orders.

Certainly Lukaszuk and the other members of the committee knew that the government had already agreed to go to arbitration to find an agreement with AUPE when in an act of bad faith they pulled Bills 45 and 46 out of their hats.

It cannot be known with absolute certainty what prompted Lukaszuk’s apparent vendetta against AUPE in particular, and labour organizations in general, although we have to presume it’s not merely part of a plot to enrich constitutional lawyers with, in Braid’s delightful phrase, “sugar plum dreams of Supreme Court of Canada arguments dancing in their heads.”

But the public service labour scene in Alberta in the months leading up to the bills’ introduction suggest a plausible interpretation of events in which the confrontational minister — infamous for such shenanigans as a doorstep shoving match with an elderly Wildrose supporter suffering from asthma and liver failure — was infuriated by labour’s refusal to knuckle under to his bullying like a terrified university administrator.

Last April, about 2,500 AUPE Correctional Officers walked off the job in a wildcat strike provoked by the government’s attempts to discipline guards who had complained about dangerous working conditions at the then-new Edmonton Remand Centre.

Both the fanciful costs of this strike dreamed up by the Redford Government and the all-too-real inconvenience it caused have been used as a government talking point to justify the introduction of Bills 45 and 46.

But the illegal strike was neither encouraged nor desired by AUPE’s leadership, which in fact worked desperately behind the scenes to bring the dispute to a quick resolution.

The seeds of the push for Bill 46 in particular, including such childish touches as specifically not allowing AUPE to collect union dues on a lump-some payment in Year 2, are surely connected to the fact Lukaszuk’s trustworthiness was called into question by AUPE when the deal that ended the strike unraveled in public.

When AUPE President Guy Smith met Lukaszuk alone in an Edmonton restaurant on April 29 and made the deal, Smith went out the door sincerely believing the deputy premier had agreed to an amnesty for the ringleaders.

But when it emerged media viewed the agreement as a climb-down for tough-guy Lukaszuk, who just hours before had vowed never to talk to the union while the strike continued, the government quickly changed its story. Eventually, several AUPE members were severely disciplined.

AUPE subsequently filed an unfair labour practice complaint with the Alberta Labour Relations Board in which it said its members felt “betrayed by the government and AUPE and take the position that they were tricked into returning to work.”

The government’s childish response to that was to file a statement calling Smith a liar who intentionally misled his own members — and then to ensure the confidential filing was leaked to the media.

It’s never been clearly established just who slipped the package to the press, but when the dust settled, the effect of the juvenile gesture was to persuade even more voters the Redford Government could not be trusted to keep any promise.

Days before, using freedom of information requests, the Alberta Federation of Labour and a CBC investigative journalist both revealed yet another example of Lukaszuk’s modus operandi, dating back to 2011 in the dying days of premier Ed Stelmach’s government.

Then the employment minister, Lukaszuk had tried to introduce a review of labour legislation without telling any unions about it, the CBC reported. Well, there was one exception: the Christian Labour Association of Canada, a controversial organization favoured by many employers to keep traditional unions out of their workplaces.

Late 2011 seemed an odd time to launch a review, with the government about to change leaders. And the make-up of the two-member review panel hardly inspired confidence — a lawyer with tight connections to the government and another well known for his anti-union views.

However, the CBC and AFL researcher Tony Clark provided a possible explanation for those circumstances.

They published correspondence netted through the FOI request that showed how a group of anti-union contractors (some working with CLAC) tried to tie generous support of the PC Party to specific changes they wanted in the Alberta Labour Code.

The evidence presented by the CBC suggested several influential government members — including Redford and Lukaszuk — enthusiastically entertained the group’s lobbying efforts, although they must have known only one member, the virulently anti-union Merit Contractors, was registered as a lobbyist.

By the 2012 election campaign, many of the group’s ideas had made it into the PC Party’s official election platform, where they can be found on page 30. Not long after that, the premier’s staff received a withering letter from a leader of the group that rebuked the PCs for moving too slowly on the file.

The net effect of these revelations was the impression Alberta’s anti-union construction companies demanded, and very nearly got, the chance to write their own governing legislation thanks to a sympathetic employment minister.

It is hard to believe these embarrassing circumstances had no impact the vindictive and unconstitutional final form taken by Bills 45 and 46.

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

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...