Politics Blog: Jason Kenney’s Bill 32 is an assault on workers’ rights

Edmonton – August 5, 2020 – When Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) won Alberta’s provincial election in 2019, workers and the labour movement braced themselves for the inevitable assault on their rights. The arrival of COVID-19 likely delayed the UCP’s attacks on working Albertans, but now the assault has arrived with the introduction of Bill 32.

Rachel Notley’s NDP government made modest reforms to Alberta’s labour legislation that brought the province’s laws in line with most other provinces in the country. Bill 32 wipes out most of those changes and attempts to move the laws back to a time when workers had few rights. The bill is a blatant attempt to reduce the bargaining power of workers and their unions and it make it extremely difficult for unions to advocate on behalf of members going forward. And it is not just unionized workers who will be affected: Bill 32 also takes a shot at non-unionized workers with changes to the employment standards laws.

Kenney’s UCP government has made changes to the Employment Standards Code that will basically eliminate overtime pay for thousands of non-union workers. Amendments to the Employment Standards Code will give employers an almost unfettered ability to get around requirements to pay time-and-half for overtime work. This section of the bill removes language in existing legislation which says that overtime averaging arrangements must be agreed upon by both employers and workers and that averaging can only be done over a period 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.

Changes to the Employment Standards Code will also make it much easier for individual employers, groups of employers, or even entire industries to be granted exemptions or variances from the rules and protections outlined in the code. Existing language will be removed, so employers will no longer have to meet minimum criteria before their requests for exemptions or variances can be granted. The change could result in whole industries like the restaurant sector requesting a variance to get away from having to pay the minimum wage.

In addition, the UCP’s Bill 32 will weaken the financial ability of unions to advocate on behalf of their members. A new section added to the Labour Relations Code divides all union spending into two bundles: Bundle A, which includes collective bargaining and grievance handling; and Bundle 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 bundle each line item of their budgets falls into; and then they’ll have to obtain explicit support from each member before they can spend their individual dues on anything in Bundle B. This will create deliberately cumbersome barriers to the effective operation of unions – barriers that are not faced by any other group in society.  

As well, new sections in the Labour Relations Code will require unions to hold votes to determine which members support having their dues spent on “Bundle B” expenses (see above) and which members do not. The section also requires unions to then share the names of workers who have voted to support “Bundle 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 who did not. The potential for this information being abused by employers – and potentially governments – is obvious and troubling and it puts a target on workers who choose to fully participate in their union’s activities.

Bill 32 also amends the Labour Relations Code in ways that clearly contravene the right to freedom of expression. One amendment, for example, says that “obstructing or impeding” a person who wishes to cross a picket line will now be deemed a wrongful and illegal act. This runs entirely counter to Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) rulings that 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 SCC has ruled that these rights are an extension of the freedom of expression guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Similarly, the Bill 32 amendments 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.

Finally, Bill 32 further amends the Labour Relations Code by giving the provincial cabinet the power to set the “time and frequency” of 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.

The changes introduced by the Kenney UCP government are guaranteed to be challenged in the courts as they appear to be blatant violations of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as they pertain to the freedom of association. But Kenney appears not to care and is willing to spend millions in the courts in order to demonize and defund unions. The changes tip the scales dramatically in favour of employers, aim to silence critics of the government, and must be opposed vigorously in the coming weeks and months.