Alberta Worker

May 28, 2017

Vol. 3, No 1

Alberta Government Introduces
New Labour Legislation

Step Up the Fight to Unstack the Deck! No Means No to Legalizing
Anti-Worker Measures!


Unstack the Deck rally at Alberta Legislature, April 30, 2017.

Alberta Government Introduces New Labour Legislation
Step Up the Fight to Unstack the Deck! No Means No to
Legalizing Anti-Worker Measures!

- Peggy Morton -
Workers Demand Labour Legislation that Recognizes Their Rights
Historical Notes on the Neo-Liberal, Anti-Worker Assault on
Construction Workers in Alberta

Alberta Government Introduces New Labour Legislation

Step Up the Fight to Unstack the Deck! No Means No to Legalizing Anti-Worker Measures!

The NDP government in Alberta introduced Bill 17, the Fair and Family-Friendly Workplaces Act on May 24. Bill 17 introduces changes to both the Employment Standards Act and the Alberta Labour Code. 

The Employment Standards Act will now provide for job-protected unpaid leaves for personal and family illness, death of a family member, and domestic violence and enforcement measures for violations by employers. Significant changes to the Alberta Labour Code do not include the crucial ban on "double-breasting," where contractors can establish spin-off companies to negate collective agreements.

The organized workers' movement has demanded major changes to the Alberta Labour Code for many years, and in recent months and weeks these demands have been put front and centre by the organized workers' movement and its allies with an Unstack the Deck! campaign. Some demands, like an end to double-breasting, date back to the 1988 Labour Code. Many are even more long-standing, and have been on the agenda of the labour movement for as long as 60 years. These include:

- guaranteed access to non-unionized workplaces for union organizers. This takes on special importance in Alberta where workers in many projects live in camps only accessible to those authorized by the employer;

- the right to union certification when a majority of workers have signed cards to join the union. Existing legislation requires a vote and provides employers with an opportunity, often used, to threaten, intimidate and fire workers and carry out various kinds of black ops;

- first contract arbitration at the request of the bargaining unit. Employers are notorious for refusing to sign a first agreement, prolonging strikes for months and even years;

- a ban on scab replacement workers;

- the legal right of all workers to refuse to cross a picket line. At present where workers respect a picket line, their union will be faced with an injunction and threat of massive fines and even decertification;

- an end to double-breasting and spin-offs in the construction industry;

- a prohibition on company-dominated unions such as the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC);

- pay equity legislation to cover all working people.

Bill 17 makes changes regarding three of these demands. It mandates first contract arbitration after 90 days. Arbitration can be triggered by either the union or the employer at the discretion of the Labour Board, in which case a strike or lockout becomes illegal. Union certification will be allowed by card check if 65 per cent of the workers have signed union cards. A vote will still be required in cases where 40 to 64 per cent of workers have signed cards. The Labour Board can order automatic certification of a union in case of unfair labour practices during an organizing drive, and also decertify a union found guilty of unfair labour practices. The Labour Board can also order the union to be given access to workers at remote sites where access to housing is controlled by the employer or other third-party. Bill 17 also extends essential services legislation to all private sector long-term care, continuing care and home care facilities as well as lab and blood services, placing a huge restriction on the right of workers in these sectors to take strike action to defend their wages and working conditions.

Neither the Employment Standards Act nor the Alberta Labour Code have been revised since 1988, a time when the neo-liberal, anti-worker offensive began in all earnest and was met with militant action by the workers to defend their rights. Their passage at that time was an act of bowing down to the oil, gas, construction and other oligarchs and their narrow private interests and the law remains stacked against the workers and their collectives.

 Even before the legislation was introduced, the government had indicated in response to the "unstack the deck" campaign that banning double-breasting would "destabilize" the construction industry. These monopolies make a killing in boom times from the wealth the workers create, and use low oil prices and recession to launch vicious attacks on the workers and seize an even greater share of the wealth the working class produces. "Stability" cannot be achieved by attacking the rights of workers.

The government is suggesting the legislation constitutes a "compromise." This is nonsense because it is the interests of the oligopolies that are being served by maintaining anti-worker laws. For example, everyone knows that the legislation permitting double-breasting was written by the construction monopolies. The basis of the old social contract was that the right of workers to organize unions was recognized, and in return workers gave up various rights. But the existing laws have the express purpose of blocking the workers from organizing. No balance or equilibrium can exist when workers' rights are not even recognized. The owners of capital and ruling elite appear determined to finish off the social contract and old balance or equilibrium once and for all and trample in the mud the rights and dignity of workers.

But this fight is far from over! No Means No! when it comes to union-busting, double-breasting, collusion between employers and company unions to deny workers their right to organize their collectives, to use scab replacement workers, and other anti-worker laws.

The demands of the workers are not just a defence of the rights of workers, but a defence of the rights of all. Now is the time to put full force behind the fight to Unstack the Deck!

The working class is already moving beyond the limits of the post-World War II social contract. Supreme Court decisions have upheld the right to a process of collective bargaining, but the aim of defending rights has been severed from the process. Furthermore, everyone can see what happens when all the decisions about the economy are left in the hands of the global monopolies and their oligopolies which follow their own greed and narrow interests. With 210,000 workers unemployed in Alberta, the status quo is not an option. It is a time for workers to discuss how to establish a new equilibrium with the owners of capital where the workers' rights are upheld.

Unstack the Deck!
Defend the Rights of Workers!
Defend the Rights of All!
No Means No! to Anti-Worker Laws!

(Discussion of these and other changes to the Employment Standards Act and Alberta Labour Code will be published in a subsequent issue of Alberta Worker.)

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Workers Demand Labour Legislation that Recognizes Their Rights

Hundreds of construction workers were joined by delegates from the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) Convention on April 30, in a militant rally in front of the Alberta Legislature. The workers came together to demand that the government guarantee in law the right of workers to organize their collectives and join the union of their choice. The current Alberta Labour Code enacted in 1988 contains provisions that not only hinder union organizing, but permit construction contractors to violate their collective bargaining obligations with impunity.

The NDP government introduced legislation to amend the Employment Standards Act and Alberta Labour Code on May 24. The legislation does not address the most blatant union-busting, anti-union provisions such as double-breasting in the construction industry. Prior to the legislation being introduced, the organized workers movement made it clear that refusal to act is unacceptable. No Means No! when it comes to laws that violate the rights of workers and those laws have to go. The law should assist not hinder workers to organize to defend their rights.

Alberta Worker is publishing below the stands of the organized workers' movement on the need for labour legislation that recognizes their rights expressed at the April 30 rally at the Alberta Legislature.

AFL President Gil McGowan

Gil McGowan, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) emceed the rally. If we were to watch a hockey game in which the rules had been deliberately set to favour one team, we would say that those rules are illegitimate, he said. We are here today to cry foul, to make the argument that the rules of the game that govern our workplaces and relationships with employers, and to join unions of our choice are rigged, he said. We are calling on the government to Unstack the Deck.

The Alberta Labour Code dates from the era of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney, President McGowan continued. Their agenda was privatization, deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, and attacks on working people. Their offensive was focussed on attacking the power of working people that comes from collective action, where we come together in unions and federations, set goals and priorities and work to realize them, he said. The code enacted in 1988 did not even recognize the existence of trade unions in its preamble. Its purpose was to inhibit organizing and bargaining, McGowan pointed out.

Scott Crichton from the IBEW

Scott Crichton from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) explained the practice of double-breasting and why the government must get rid of the law that permits this practice. Double-breasting allows contractors to create spin-off companies to make it difficult to organize, and to create non-union companies that pay workers a lower wage. This has been going on for 33 years in Alberta and the time to stop the practice is now, he said. He reminded everyone that the current Premier's father, Grant Notley, stood in the Legislature at that time in support of the building trades workers. Mr. Notley said that the change to the labour law would deprive workers of their economic power and that is exactly what happened. In 1982, 70 per cent of building trades were unionized. By 1984, this had dropped to eight per cent and it has been an uphill battle ever since.

Martyn Piper from the Alberta Carpenters

Martyn Piper from the Alberta Carpenters said workers are those who create wealth and provide critical services. At this rally, we represent all working people who should be given the opportunity to pick the union of their choice and keep it until they decide otherwise, he stated.

Thirty-four years ago, we stood in front of this Legislature to protest a grossly unfair, unjust piece of legislation, which overnight allowed unionized building trades companies to open non-union affiliates, compete with themselves and violate their obligations. Today, employers use the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) as a barrier to prevent workers from having a union, he said. This is an affront to every honest working man and woman who wants legitimate representation. These sham double-breasting companies have not done this anywhere else in Canada, Piper pointed out. This practice and the law that permits it are shameful and show a blatant disregard for the workers' freedom to associate with the labour union that they choose, he said.

Piper concluded that the practice of double-breasting is a well-designed, systematic strategy to destroy the building trades unions and then the rest of our unions. It's an ideology fostered on the U.S. Gulf Coast where workers earn less than $15 an hour with no benefits, putting themselves at risk every day. It is time that the government made a courageous decision by bringing an end to this legislation.

Heather Smith, UNA President

Heather Smith, United Nurses of Alberta President, said that the Employment Standards Act is also under review. This act sets the floor for working conditions for those who do not have a union and collective agreement. It is important that the Act respect workers' rights.

Smith said that nurses have been at the Legislature many times, always because of an unjust order: ordering nurses to return to work, taking away the right to strike and making criminals of nurses. While the law prohibiting strikes has now been removed, many other changes enacted in the 1980s still remain, with double-breasting perhaps the most outrageous.

The government needs to enact real penalties for employers who violate the Employment Standards and Labour Relations codes. There should be automatic certification of unions when companies engage in unfair labour practices; as well as, first contract arbitration to stop employers from being able to use intimidation and threats with impunity, Smith said.

McGowan called on everyone to go to for more information about the campaign and to send a letter to MLAs, the Labour Minister and the Premier. Tell the government that the new Labour Code must include provisions that outlaw the practice of double-breasting, he said.

The spirit of the rally showed the determination of workers to bring to an end the current anti-worker, union-busting Alberta labour law. The working class will not tolerate an Employment Standards Act or Alberta Labour Code that does not recognize their rights in law and in practice.

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Historical Notes on the Neo-Liberal, Anti-Worker Assault on Construction Workers in Alberta

Construction workers participate in 1986 Alberta Labour Federation demonstration demanding changes to Alberta labour law.

The assault on unions in the construction industry began in all earnest in 1982 during a major recession which brought the boom in Alberta to a screeching halt. The contractors launched an all-out offensive on the wages and working conditions of workers in construction and to destroy the unions. Many workers still remember this bitter period, both for its hardships and the courageous battles fought in defence of the rights of all.

In 1979, non-union companies were involved in relatively small projects, including residential construction. Between 70 and 80 per cent of commercial, industrial and institutional construction was carried out by unionized companies in the period before the 1981 recession. The construction monopolies hatched a scheme to effectively tear up the collective agreements they had signed, by setting up "spin-off companies" which they claimed were not covered by the collective agreements they had signed.

By May 1, 1982, 805 non-union contractors were operating in Calgary and Edmonton. Some were spin-offs of unionized contractors, in others "joint venture" arrangements were used to hide the true owners. Unionized contractors set up no-name, numbered payroll companies to hire and pay workers. These companies could be registered, used for a short time and then replaced by a new paper spin-off. The practice came to be known as "double-breasting."

The existing labour code gave the Alberta Labour Relations Board discretionary power to declare a common employer. A common employer declaration meant that union certification and existing collective agreements would apply to the new entity. In 1983 the contractors pressed the government to change the law, and eliminate this discretionary power. The Lougheed government complied with Bill 10.

Building trades workers organized mass demonstrations at the Legislature and carried out actions on construction sites. They were known as a force which stood as one with workers of every sector fighting for their rights. For example, in 1986 hundreds of unemployed construction workers came day after day to play their part in the historic "Battle of 66th Street" to defend the strike at the Gainer meat-packing plant and stop the scab replacement workers from entering the plant. Bill 10 was passed, but in the face of the massive resistance of the workers and their unions, it was never proclaimed into law.

Almost all the building trades contracts in industrial, commercial and institutional construction had a common expiry date of April 30, 1984. The minute the contracts expired, the contractor monopolies locked out all the unionized workers for 25 hours. They then offered to "re-hire" the workers in their spin-off companies at wages 30 to 50 per cent lower and even more when benefits and allowances are included.

Although legislation legalizing this practice was not passed at this time, the Lougheed government used its police or arbitrary powers to achieve the same result. The Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB) reversed long-standing practices and changed its "interpretation" of the existing law, declaring that the practice of "double-breasting" was perfectly legal and that existing collective agreements did not apply.

All the contractor had to do was say, "Oh no, I am not an employer. I am a project management company." To which the Labour Relations Board would say, "Great, you have set up a dummy company to hire and pay workers. So you are not an employer. But the law deals with employers, so the Labour Board has no jurisdiction. Go ahead, do as you please. Contract out the work to yourself, through a nameless, numbered company that you have set up precisely to eliminate the union."

This travesty was initially upheld by the courts, but the contractors were concerned that the ALRB might not continue to collude so readily in sanctioning the establishment of spin-off companies. In 1988 the government enacted a new Labour Relations Code which gave the construction monopolies exactly what they had been seeking.

Unions continued to organize under these onerous conditions, and the monopolies responded with another scheme, where they would either voluntarily recognize the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), or arrange for CLAC to carry out a "vote" when as few as two workers were on site. To add insult to injury, the law declared that the onus was on the union to prove two companies were one and the same and then provided no retroactivity. So even if a challenge was successful at the ALRB, the project was in all likelihood already completed by the time the decision was reached.

When the Carpenters Union applied in 2001 to be certified to represent the carpenters working for J.V. Driver, replacing CLAC, the collusion of CLAC, the employers and the Labour Board was fully revealed. CLAC had signed a new agreement before the old one expired so that there would be no open period and no opportunity for workers to vote for the Carpenters Union. But the workers were kept completely in the dark, not even informed that an agreement had been signed, much less being able to vote on it. The Labour Board had no problem with this, but the courts said it was patently unreasonable, although the decision was declared moot for other reasons.

Yet another legacy of the Lougheed years which was used to attack the right of workers to organize collectively dated back to the building of Syncrude in 1974. Syncrude insisted on a no-strike site agreement with the construction unions as a condition for the project. In response the Lougheed government changed the law to allow a declaration of special project status which meant that provincial collective agreements did not apply.

The intent and effect of the legislation was to ensure the unrestricted rights of the oil and construction monopolies to "labour peace" in the oil sands. Nowhere in the legislation was there any guarantee that when a project was designated for a separate agreement, that it would be a union site. This special project status legislation was used by Canadian Natural Resources Limited, to shut out the unions on the Horizon oil sands project site and sign an agreement with CLAC.

It was clear that the old arrangements with the working class were dead. The neo-liberal anti-social offensive began in earnest with the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Brian Mulroney in Canada. The oligopolies declared that they had no responsibility to society and no responsibility to uphold their end of the then existing arrangements with the working class. The aim of society was to make the monopolies competitive, using any means necessary. If the unions would not submit, then they could be reduced to a small "market share" of the work, where their role of providing skilled and experienced workers through their hiring halls would be preserved and used when needed.

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