Thursday, June 05, 2008

Bill 26 Long Overdue

New day dawning for labour rights in Alberta

You mess with the bull, you get the horns -- or so the saying goes.

When the Alberta Federation of Labour and Alberta Building Trades Council oonstituted their "Albertans for Change" front group and aired ads accusing the Stelmach Conservatives of (among other things) being corrupt, they must have imagined that the government would look into some of their own practices and start dealing with some of their corrupt practices.

Now, that time is fast approaching as Bill 26 -- the Labour Relations Amendment Bill -- is set to be debated in the Legislature.

Among other things, the Bill designates Ambulance workers as an essential service, makes it unlawful for individuals who have been employed at a workplace for less than 30 days to vote in a certification vote, provides new opportunities for the revokation of a Union's bargaining power, and outlaws "Market Enhancement Recovery Funds".

Naturally, Alberta Federation of Labour is outraged, insisting that Bill 26 is an attack on workers' rights:

"The Bill does three things to attack worker rights:

1. It restricts the rights of construction workers to choose union representation. In the name of banning so-called "salting", the bill prohibits workers who have worked for a construction company for less than 30 days to participate in a certification vote. It also gives 90 days following the vote for workers to "change their mind" about joining the union.

2. It outlaws employer-paid wage-subsidy funds negotiated between employers and building trade unions. Market Enhancement Recovery Funds (MERFs) are a srategy employed by construction employers and unions to help unionized contractors win bids against non-union contractors. The Bill outlaws these legally negotiated funds.

3. It strips the right to strike from ambulance workers. Ambulance workers will now be forced to use binding arbitration, like the rest of health care workers, rather than be allowed to engage in a legal strike.

These particular objections really show a person where organized labour's priorities are in this particular situation.

First off, the practice of "salting" has long been a method by which Labour Unions have artificially expanded their membership by engineering a favourable confirmation vote. Now, Labour Unions will have to organize the old fashioned way: by convincing the employees of a workplace that Unionization is for them, as opposed to merely stocking it with their own people.

Secondly, the 90-day period in which workers may -- by majority vote -- reovoke a certification vote gives them an opportunity to prevent any unpleasant surprises being sprung on them, such as a Union immediately re-staffing a workplace with their own workers on the basis of seniority.

The AFL is also conveniently overlooking the fact that Bill 26 also requires that any employee voting in a certification revokation vote have been employed by that company for more than 30 days, preventing employers from stocking their workplace with their own people in order to engineer a de-certification.

Third, outlawing MERFs takes away an unfair advantage that Unions are using to render the contracting market less competitive. Now non-Union workers will have a greater opportunity to compete with Unionized labour: surely an unwelcome prospect for Unions that have often used their collective power to protect substandard workers.

Fourth, whether the AFL likes it or not, Ambulance workers are providing an essential service. That is a simple fact.

But the AFL's objections to Bill 26 go beyond that. They seem to be very worried about the prospect of actually having to compete with their competition:

"Bill 26 is a gift to the Conservatives' friends in the construction industry - a group of anti-union contractors and an "alternative" union have been agitating for these changes to hamstring the building trades unions in the construction sector.

The Merit Contractors Association and the Progressive Contractors Association (PCAC) have been lobbying for restrictions on certification votes and the elimination of MERFs for almost a decade. Both are avowed "open-shop" associations, which seek to undermine union representation and enhance employer rights in the construction sector. Members of both organizations are closely connected to the Conservative Party in Alberta.

A direct beneficiary of the changes will be the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), an employer-friendly "alternative union" that preaches a more cooperative, collaborationist version of unionism. Because CLAC works more closely with employers, they stand to benefit disproportionately from employer-biased rules.

Perhaps if the AFL had spent less time campaigning and more time making itself legitimately competitive, it wouldn't have to feel so threatened by Bill 26.

In the end, Bill 26 is almost assured passage from the inability of the AFL and ABTC to organize an effective response to it.

Which is fine in the books of many Albertans. Certainly, workers do have the right to unionize. However, that right doesn't spare them the "indignity" of having to be competitive in the work market.

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