“Fair and family-friendly workplaces” apparently means join a union

June 5, 2017 - 3:15pm

The Government of Alberta has introduced Bill 17, the “Fair and Family-Friendly Workplaces Act.”

Honestly, it’s a great name for a piece of legislation. Based solely on the name of the bill, you would have to be a monster to object to it. But, this piece of legislation addresses two distinctly different acts, the Employment Standards Code (ESC) and the Labour Relations Code (LRC). Most of the proposed changes to the ESC easy to support from the standpoint of most employers, but I can’t say the same for the LRC changes.

The ESC changes will provide a number of important and reasonable guarantees to Alberta workers. For example, those affected with a long-term illness can receive up to 16 weeks in unpaid leave. Parents dealing with the death or disappearance of a child will get up to a 52 week leave. There are also a number of guarantees around leave for bereavement, domestic violence, or citizenship ceremonies. I can’t name a single employer that was terminating employees dealing with terrible things like illness, bereavement, the disappearance of a child, but that is beside the point.

There are also a number of measures around banked overtime, breaks, and even an aspect that will make it illegal for employers to charge employees when the business is subject to a gas-and-dash or dine-and-dash.

The summer employment of youth has been a staple for many industries in Alberta as they race to take advantage of our short summer. Bill 17 has added major restrictions on the type of work that can be done by people below 18 years of age based on whether the position is “light-work,” or deemed to be “hazardous.” Whether the government will deem it “hazardous” to operate a lawn mower, hold a “slow” sign for a traffic crew, or operate power tools for a construction company will be determined later on in regulations. Regardless, these added restrictions will increase the youth unemployment rate and the costs on business. I’m not sure if that’s “fair” or “family-friendly” but that is the way it is going to be.

Probably of greatest significance are the changes to the LRC governing the rules around unionization and specifically the change that will take away workers right to vote privately on unionization. On this topic it’s worth keeping in mind the close ties between the New Democrat Party and organized labour.

This attempt at "modernization" will bring rules around unionization back to where they were before 1988, reverting back to a "card-check" system. For those unfamiliar with the processes around unionization (less than 11% of the private sector in Alberta is part of a union), when workers vote on whether to become unionized they do so via a secret ballot. Voting in secret has been essential to any democratic process, but apparently not if you are considering unionization.

A card-check system basically allows the union organizer to influence and then collect signatures from those in favour of unionization. Opponents of the card-check system argue it deprives workers of their right to privacy, their right to vote, and results in bullying and overt pressure from those in favour to the point where some say “I only signed to get the union off my back.”

The changes to the labour relations code also include measures that will make it more difficult to decertify the union, improve collecting bargaining outcomes for the unions, and increase the likelihood of strikes.

While changing labour laws is certainly the government's prerogative, they should call a spade a spade. The Fair and Family-Friendly Workplaces bill had a very limited consultation period disproportionately attended by union representatives, a very short time scheduled for debate in the legislature, and addresses two very different acts simultaneously. Opponents of the LRC changes will be attacked for not supporting things like bereavement leave. So is the bill really about improving lives for workers, or increasing unionization?

The changes to the labour relations code will undoubtedly increase unionization rates in Alberta and result in additional costs and risks layered upon business. It is yet another mark against Alberta’s business friendly attitude and will have far reaching impacts on our ability to attract and retain businesses in our province. 

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