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The end of overtime, sweeping cuts to the minimum wage and authoritarian intimidation of workers

The AFL releases list of the “top six” most dangerous sections of Bill 32

The Alberta Federation of Labour has released a “Top Six” list of the most dangerous sections of Bill 32, the UCP’s so-called “Restoring Balance to Alberta Workplaces Act.”

#1: The End of Overtime in Alberta

Amendments to section 23.1 of the Employment Standards Code will give employers the almost unfettered ability to get around requirements to pay time-and-half for overtime. This section of the Bill removes language in existing legislation which says that overtime averaging arrangements have to be agreed upon by BOTH employers and workers and that averaging can only be done over a period of time that cannot exceed 12 weeks. Under the UCP’s new legislation, employers will be able to impose averaging arrangements without worker consent (so much for the importance of “choice” that the UCP keeps talking about) and they will be able to average employees’ hours over the whole year, instead of 12 weeks. In practice, this means that most employers will able to “average away” almost all overtime hours worked by their employees. That means that overtime pay in Alberta could almost entirely disappear.

“This will effectively be the end of overtime as we know it for non-union workers in Alberta,” says Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan. “This is going to vaporize huge chunks of income for many Albertans, especially those who work in industries characterized by long hours and seasonal work, like construction, energy and agriculture.”

#2: The End of Minimum Standards

Amendments to section 74(3) of the Employment Standards Code will make it much easier for individual employers, groups of employers or even whole economic sectors to be granted exemptions or variances from the rules and protections outlined in the Code. Section 74(3)(b) of the existing Code will be removed, so employers will no longer have to meet minimum criteria before their requests for exemptions or variances can be granted.

“The Employment Standards Code is supposed to establish a floor of rights for all working Albertans. But Bill 32 pokes huge holes in that floor and makes a mockery of the whole idea of minimum standards,” says McGowan. “We expect the restaurant industry to be the first to use these new powers. Mark my words, they’re going to ask for a variance that will exempt them from paying the minimum wage. And, as a result of Bill 32, that request will be granted. What’s the point of having rules when employers can simply opt out of them?”

#3: Defunding Unions

Bill 32 adds section 26.1(1) to the Labour Relations Code. This new section divides all union spending into two buckets: bucket A, which includes collective bargaining and grievance handling; and bucket B, which includes everything else (organizing, education, lobbying, public and political advocacy, work with allies, support for charities, etc.). Unions will have to determine which bucket each line item of their budgets fall into; and then they’ll have to get explicit support from each member before they can spend their individual dues on anything in bucket B. By creating deliberately cumbersome barriers to the effective operation of unions – barriers faced by no other groups in society – this part of Bill 32 clearly contravenes the constitutional guarantee regarding freedom of association.

“The UCP says this provision of Bill 32 is about choice and democracy. But, in reality, they’re thumbing their nose at the labour movement’s robust internal system of representative democracy, which has traditionally been used to decide spending priorities,” says McGowan. “This also goes way beyond unions buying ads. For the purposes of the Bill, almost everything we do is deemed ‘political,’ a blatant mischaracterization that the UCP is using to discredit unions in the eyes their members and the public. This part of the Bill is designed to demonize and defund unions, plain and simple. It’s also an undemocratic effort by the Kenney government to silence their critics and tip the playing field in favour of employers in the workplace and the UCP itself on the political stage.”

#4: Intimidation of workers

Bill 32 adds sections 26.1(3) and 26.1(5) to the Labour Relations Code. Section 26.1(3) says that unions must run votes to determine which members support having portions of their dues spent on “bucket B” expenses (see above) and which members don’t. Section 26.1(5) says that unions must then share the NAMES of workers who have voted to support “bucket B” expenses WITH THEIR EMPLOYER. In other words, these will NOT be secret ballot votes. Employers will know exactly who voted to support their union’s broader activities and those who did not. The potential for misuse of this information by employers (and potentially governments) is obvious and troubling. By painting targets on the backs of workers who choose to fully participate in the activities of their unions, this part of Bill 32 clearly contravenes constitutional guarantees related to freedom of association.

“These votes will be about as ‘free and fair’ as votes conducted in authoritarian countries like Russia and China,” says McGowan. “When casting their ballots, workers will understand that their employer will know exactly how they voted. Employers could use this information to create a ‘trouble-makers’ list. It could be used to target workers who support the union by denying them shifts or promotions. And it could be used by employers to run campaigns to decertify the union. All of this will have a chilling effect and it will discourage workers from voting the way they really want to vote; which, of course, is the UCP’s actual goal. This is the opposite of democracy. It’s government-sanctioned intimidation of workers. The fact that the UCP says this is an example of democracy at work suggests that either they have a very warped definition of democracy, or that, as usual, they’re just lying. This is authoritarian stuff.”

#5: Crushing freedom of expression

Bill 32 amends sections 84.1(1) and 84.1(3) of the Labour Relations Code in ways that clearly contravene the right to freedom of expression. The amendment to section 84.1(3), for example, says that “obstructing or impeding” a person who wishes to cross a picket line will now be deemed to be a wrongful and illegal act. This runs entirely counter to Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) rulings which have supported the right of picketers to talk to people on picket lines, hand out literature and stop them for reasonable periods of time. The Supreme Court has ruled that these rights are an extension of the freedom of expression guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Similarly, the amendments to section 84.1(1) are almost certainly unconstitutional because they say union members can only picket secondary sites (i.e. sites other than their main work site) if they get permission from the Labour Relations Board (which would be extremely unlikely to happen under a UCP government). Once again, the SCC has ruled on secondary pickets, and they have determined that they fall under Charter protections on the freedom of expression.

“The new restrictions on picketing outlined in Bill 32 are clear violations of the right to free expression guaranteed by the Charter,” says McGowan. “Taken together with the $1000-a-day fines for protests on roads, sidewalks and public squares that the UCP set out in Bill 1, they amount to an effort by the UCP to criminalize dissent and protest in Alberta. What’s happening here is that the UCP is giving themselves new tools to use against workers and citizens should they choose to mobilize strikes or protests against the UCP’s agenda of cuts, privatization and polarization. And, once they’ve given themselves those tools, you can bet that they’ll use them. This is an affront to democracy and it reeks of authoritarianism.”

#6: Government intrusion into the affairs of private citizens and groups

Bill 32 amends section 26 of the Labour Relations Code by adding section 26.1(11). This new section gives the provincial cabinet the power to set the “time and frequency” when unions can make changes to their dues, and suggests that the government can also set the amount, as well. This represents an unprecedented level of government intrusion into the decisions of private citizens and the internal affairs of private groups. Once again, a strong argument can be made that these measures violate the right to freedom of association guaranteed to all Canadians by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“Imagine if a left-leaning government introduced a law giving themselves power over the internal affairs of the Chamber of Commerce or the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers,” says McGowan. “There would be a justifiable outcry and legitimate claims of government overreach. But somehow this is deemed acceptable if the targets are workers and labour unions. The UCP’s double standard speaks volumes about what they’re really trying to accomplish with Bill 32. This isn’t about freedom or choice. And it’s certainly not about restoring balance. As constitutional lawyer Colin Feasby wrote in a recent analysis of Bill 32 for the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law blog, Bill 32 is a ‘paradigmatic example’ of legislative power being used to ‘silence or impair the efficacy of political opponents.’ In other words, it’s about shutting up people the government doesn’t agree with. Once again, this is profoundly undemocratic and it reflects an authoritarian approach to governance that is completely at odds with Canadian law and Canadian political traditions.”

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