Alberta labour code changes draw praise, criticism

In the wee hours of the morning, the Alberta government passed new legislation which it says will improve the province's labour code, but critics claim it is an attack on the basic rights of workers.

The government passed Bill 26, the Labour Relations Amendment Act 2008, only three days after introducing the legislation.

The bill states that employees in the construction sector must have worked for an employer for at least 30 days in order to participate in a union certification vote.

The government designed the new provisions to prevent salting - planting unionized workers on a construction site before an election vote - as a union-organizing tactic in the construction sector.

"The rebalancing measures contained in Bill 26 will help ensure a competitive and stable labour relations regime exists for construction companies. These measures are desperately needed as the province moves forward developing the oil sands and building much needed infrastructure projects," said Stephen Kushner, Merit Contractors Association president, before the legislation was passed.

"While a handful of internationally affiliated craft union locals use unfair organizing practices and bid subsidy schemes, the impacts can have devastating consequences in critical trade areas such as carpentry, electrical work, plumbing and pipefitting."

In sharp contrast to this view, a spokesperson for the labour movement in Alberta said he believes that Bill 26 is designed to benefit employers at the expense of organized labour.

"The big winners from this proposed change in the labour code are the big non-union contractors under the banner of Merit. This is a gift from the government to them. These changes will tilt the playing field further in their favour," said Gil McGowan, Alberta Federation of Labour president, shortly after the legislation was introduced.

"This is not about fairness, because the government is squeezing unionized construction firms out of Alberta."

Merit argued that Bill 26 will promote fairness in the construction industry and would give more democratic control to construction workers during unionization elections.

"The proposed changes simply level the playing field in terms of acceptable organizing and bidding activities and leave critical decision making in the hands of individual employees rather than union leaders. What could be more democratic?" Kushner said.

The AFL argued that Bill 26 is intended to make it almost impossible for construction workers to express their democratic right to join a union.

"The issue of salting is a straw man the government is using as an excuse to ram through these draconian measures, which make it more difficult for workers to join a construction union," said McGowan.

"Many construction jobs last for less than thirty days and many construction workers make a living moving from one short term contract to another. The new legislation is saying these sites can't be organized and these workers can't unionize."

"Bill 26 also gives employees 90 days to reconsider their decision to join a union.

"Even when a union earns the right to certify, employers will have 90 days to have workers change their minds and revoke the certification," McGowan said.

"We all know that employers will use this period to beat up and discourage workers from becoming union members. This should be called a 90-day intimidation period."

Journal of Commerce, Mon Jun 9 2008
Byline: Richard Gilbert

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