Kenney’s UCP government has used the pandemic to their advantage, passing a number of outrageous laws that accelerate handouts to Alberta’s most profitable corporations, while cracking down hard on the rights of citizens to protest. Team Advantage convenes to discuss Alberta’s Job Creation Tax Cut, Bill 1: Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, and Bill 32: Restoring Balance in Alberta’s Workplaces Act.
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Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. My name is Kate Jacobson, and with me today are Team Advantage members Joel —
Joel: Hello hello.
Kate: And Tyler.
Kate: Today, we’ll be doing a bit of an update on Hellberta, focusing specifically on Bills 1, 30, 32, and the government’s comically aggressive corporate tax rate cut. But to start off with, I think we should really talk a bit more about the speed and aggression at which this government is moving. They are being extremely aggressive in both the speed at which they present legislation and also in the form of the legislation itself. So these are massive bills, many of them chalking in at over 100 pages, that are making really substantial changes to things like our public healthcare system, collective bargaining rights, all manner of things. And they’re really not slowing down. It’s been a year since the United Conservative Party formed government in Alberta, and they are basically still foot flat on the gas, creating legislation, moving very quickly. This is what is often known as a “shock doctrine” in a classic style, particularly when you see it happening at a time of COVID-19, which is when a government, often a right-wing government, takes advantage of something happening — like, say, a global pandemic — and uses it to reinforce their ideological frame and uses it to push through legislation actions, big structural changes in society that they might ordinarily have to spend more time manufacturing consent for, but can now move quite, quite quickly. And I want to make it really clear when we talk about this that it’s not that moving quickly, or being aggressive with your political project, is bad in and of itself — it’s that the government doing these things, and the purposes and ends for which they are doing them, is bad. You know, it’s in the service of corporate power, it’s in the service of making the rich richer, it’s in the service of fleecing working people in Alberta. Moving quickly and aggressively, you know, if you’re a government that wants to redistribute money from the wealthy to the working class, or fix massive endemic problems in our society like homelessness or drug use, is actually really really great; the issue is the content, you know. If a government was moving really quickly to create a safe supply for drug users, that would be great. But that’s not what’s happening.
Tyler: Yeah, we would love to see a social democratic government doing what the UCP is doing, but with bills that we like to see — putting them out so fast and furiously that, not only can the media keep up with it, but the average person barely has any idea what’s going on. So it’s hard to even react — especially right now, during the pandemic. If you turn on the nightly news or you go to the webpage of whatever your favourite news organization is, stories one, two, three, ongoing trackers, it’s all COVID-related. So you barely even hear about the legislation the government is passing right now, let alone see any deep dives, where people don’t even have the time to consider what the opposition are organizing around these bills are.
Kate: Yeah, one of the things we say on the podcast all the time — sometimes a little bit glibly — is that we need a shock doctrine of the left. And definitely when we say it, it can sound like a joke, but it is a real political belief that we hold, which is that left-wing governments should take advantage of instability, whether it is economic or political or even biological (like this current pandemic) in order to remake society, to push their ideological frames and to make changes to the structures of our society.
Tyler: Yeah, the left seems — or, at least, the centre-left, or whatever we want to call the NDP in Alberta, whatever the hell they are — what they tend to do is try to build consensus around these issues instead of just putting through their political vision and saying, “Look: here’s what the problems in society are, this is what you elected us to do, this is what we want to accomplish; we’re just going to do it. No apologies — we got elected, so we have the mandate to do these things.” Conservative governments never are coy about these things. They have — I think rightfully — the belief that, “We were elected on a mandate to do these things, and we’re going to do them as quickly as possible. And people are going to be angry, but that’s just the cost of doing business when you’re in government.”
Joel: So, let’s talk a little bit about the giant dump truck of bad news that Jason Kenney and his government have dumped on Alberta. Let’s start with a classic — they accelerated the corporate tax rate cut. In their delightful fashion, they called it “Alberta’s Job Creation Tax Cut.” You may recall that they were rolling back the corporate tax rate — it was 12% when Kenney took power, and they were knocking it down a full percentage point every year from that point. The original plan was to get it down to 8% by January 1st, 2022, but because of COVID-19 — question mark, question mark, question mark — the corporate tax cut has now been accelerated and, effective July 1st, 2020, the corporate tax rate is now 8%. Cool.
Tyler: Very cool, also, to think that the party that obviously loves to bang on about how we need balanced budgets wants to cut one of their main sources of income right when we need the highest expenditures to prevent our society from full-force returning to work and spreading the virus even more. So — incredibly, incredibly bad and dangerous decision.
Kate: Yeah, it can be a bit like shooting fish in a barrel to point out that the Conservatives are being hypocrites, but sometimes I do think that it doesn’t get said enough that one of the best ways to reduce a deficit is to raise taxes, and to raise taxes, specifically, on the rich, and on corporations like Amazon and Wal-Mart. As part of this job creation tax cut, they’re also been reheating the “50,000 jobs will be created” line even though, in Alberta right now, we have a probable real unemployment rate of about 25%. So I don’t really know how these 50,000 jobs are going to be created — you know, that’s one of the oldest myths in the book, that corporate tax cuts are going to create jobs, and you have never seen it happen in the past, and you are definitely not seeing it happen right now in Alberta with an extremely high real unemployment rate.
Joel: What I’m wondering is that, maybe they’re re-announcing that number so that, whatever limited recovery bounce-back occurs in the coming months, they can credit themselves for spurring it on, even though it’s probably a somewhat normal economic bounceback.
Tyler: Just getting back to the natural level. Yeah, one thing that’s interesting, too, is if you talk to people who are higher up on the financial and strategic thinking of, you know, big organizations especially — not small businesses — their strategic planning in terms of investing, starting big capital projects, hiring, all these things, they’re done very far in advance. So, you know, a 1% drop rate a year is certainly not impacting them. Even a shock 3% — very rarely is that going to actually — a company is going to see that and say, “Oh, damn, we were waiting around for something like this to happen so we could go forward with this new project!” More likely, what’s going to happen is that’s just going to add a little bit to their expenditures that they were expecting — or reduce from those, rather — so they’ve got a little bit more profit to play with, a little bit more income to play with, you know. Most likely, what we see with a lot of big companies, especially public ones, that’s going to be share buybacks, that’s going to be dividends, all of the things that we really hate to see. So, you know, it really is quite shocking how successful this line has been of, you know, every percentage that we cut in taxes is going to spur on X amount of new jobs.
Joel: And, as a result, Alberta now has the lowest corporate tax rate in Canada. The tax rate elsewhere is at 12% in BC, 12% in Saskatchewan, 12% in Manitoba, 11.6% in Quebec, 11.5% in Ontario, and 8% in Alberta. We couldn’t even just match the second-lowest rate and just say, “Look, we are matched with Ontario at 11.5%.” It’s, like, no, we’ve got to beat all the other provinces by several percentage points because we don’t need revenue that much. A bill that was introduced pre-COVID that was quite outrageous was Bill 1, the “Critical Infrastructure Act” — basically made it illegal to obstruct critical infrastructure. And critical infrastructure was defined as pipelines, oil and gas production sites, utilities, telecommunications lines, highways, railways, mines. If you look at the legislation, it also includes stuff like roads or being close to roads, and it allowed regulations to expand the definition of “essential infrastructure” in the future if necessary, and then basically introduced huge penalties for offending — willfully entering any essential infrastructure, destroying or damaging essential infrastructure, obstructing, gaining entry, aiding, counseling, or directing others to commit an offense. So the first penalty was $10,000 for a first offense, up to $25,000 for subsequent offences, and up to $200,000 for corporations that help or direct trespassers. And because this happened largely on the heels of the Wet’suwet’en blockades and the sympathetic blockades of the different rail and road sites, it was largely seen as a response to that.
Kate: Yeah, I think it’s really telling that, when the UCP was debating this bill in the legislature, the two incidents that they talked about were the solidarity blockade of a railroad in Edmonton, in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en, and also the blockade of a Co-op fuel terminal in Carseland by Unifor in solidarity with blocked-out Unifor workers at the Co-op refinery in Regina. So you really see, from the way this bill is being talked about, who is the intended target and what types of disruption they’re specifically thinking about. And they’re thinking about people and organizations that have the ability, and also have the willingness, to disrupt capital accumulation — so, to cause any kind of disruption to the status quo. But, for me, one of the most frustrating things about the way Bill 1 has been generally discussed here in Alberta is that the conversation around it has basically completely glossed over how the enforcement of laws like this is a political question in favour of, kind of, this really frantic pearl-clutching, this idea that everything is about to become illegal. And while, absolutely Bill 1 has a massive potential for overreach, policing, prosecution, and how these laws are applied — you know, these are all political questions. I personally think it is exponentially more likely that Bill 1 is used against a disruption that’s aimed at fossil fuel companies than, say, a run-of-the-mill private employer picket line or your mass weekend march at the Legislature. And this is not to say that the latter two groups shouldn’t take Bill 1 seriously, but that we should be honest about who and what Bill 1 is targeting, which I think is primarily the environmental movement and primarily Indigenous people in Alberta. And these are people who are already over-policed and already over-prosecuted. And the other thing I want to say about this is that the cops can and do harass people at perfectly legal protests and picket lines, and if you participate in enough of them, you know, you’ve probably been harassed by the cops on some bullshit, trumped-up reason. So I think the idea that just because this law is on the books, it’s going to apply point-blank to everyone all the time, is inaccurate, is fear-mongering, and really misunderstands the political situation.
Tyler: Right. I mean, you know, a bill like this gives a very, very broad amount of power to intervene, but if they use this at every single demonstration — if you’ve got, you know, nurses marching or teachers, and you started using this to crack down on protests like that or actions — the government that’s responsible for putting the bill in and directing enforcement of the bill is going to be, I think, seen to be quite unpopular quite quickly. So this gives them the scope that they can pretty much enforce this however they want, but assuming that they are not stupid and that they’re actually quite cunning in how they deploy these things, they’ll use it in the instances when they think it’s most effective and when they probably think they have broad public support, which I think they would if it was anything to do with oil and gas infrastructure.
Kate: Yeah, and, Tyler, you brought up the nurses, and I want to say — you know what, I think that if nurses were picketing major hospitals, absolutely, I think this is legislation that might be used. But the reason it might be used is because that would be disruptive, you know? Like, it would be a job action that would be disruptive to the status quo and would have the actual power to force concessions from this government. And that’s why we should take Bill 1 seriously. The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which is the largest union in Alberta, is challenging Bill 1 in court on that logic, that Bill 1, by preventing these kinds of activities and by being overly broad, basically prohibits them from operating as a trade union with the right to engage in demonstration and in civil disobedience and in picketing. And we should take it seriously. But I think the idea that it’s just going to be — everyone’s going to be hit by thousand-dollar fines the second you step on a road during a protest is a misunderstanding of the way these types of laws are applied. You know, they’re applied to people that the government thinks they can get away with it.
Joel: Yeah. You don’t build a Death Star to blow up every planet; you build a Death Star to blow up planets you want to make an example out of to keep all the other planets in line.
Kate: Realistically, Bill 1 is going to be used either against a union engaging in large-scale strike action that is very confrontational with some kind of infrastructure or it’s going to be used against the environmental movement or Indigenous land and water defenders engaging with fossil fuel infrastructure. I could be wrong, but those are the only two ways I realistically see the full force of Bill 1 being used in Alberta.
Joel: Another huge dump truck of legislation that the UCP dumped on Alberta is Bill 22. It is more than 170 pages long — it changes fourteen pieces of legislation in six different ministries. It will, among other things, allow oil sands projects to go ahead with Cabinet approval, it will scrap Energy Efficiency Alberta — who needs that anyways — and it will allow all Canadians, not just Albertans, to purchase public land. Hooray.
Kate: Next up in the cavalcade of awful bills, we have Bill 29, the Local Authorities Election Amendment Act — also introduced in June — which gives an advantage to candidates in municipal elections who already have support from wealthy donors. Basically what this act does is: it removes the requirement for candidates to disclose their donors prior to Election Day, it removes limits on spending by third-party advertisers outside of the local election campaign period — so it’s May 1st to election day in October — and it allows individuals to donate up to $5000 to as many candidates as they want during an election. The Alberta NDP’s changes to municipal election laws literally did not even have the chance to get used in one single major city municipal election.
Joel: And I just want to haze the NDP a little bit because they totally could have. They came in power in 2015. A few years later, there was a municipal election, and they could have easily put at the top of the legislative agenda, “Oh, we’ve got to change those municipal elections laws so that the only round of municipal elections that happens under our watch will happen with these new rules, and everybody will be impressed with how good they are.” But instead, they waited until after the municipal elections — at least in Calgary and Edmonton, I believe — and then now the UCP’s changing them, and we didn’t even get a full municipal election cycle with the new rules. Cool.
Tyler: Yeah, and as if conservative politicians needed more of a leg up. Already had the benefit of broadly-sympathetic media coverage through a lot of the larger media conglomerates in the country and in the province, and already had access to the money that they need. So this just makes things much easier, and it’s almost just salt in the wound at this point.
Joel: Bill 30 — the Health Statutes Amendment Act. Sounds super fascinating. Basically, it opens the way to more private delivery of publicly-funded healthcare. The government says this will free up space in hospitals and shorten waiting lists. Sure. Critics, including more than a few physicians, warn that this will take resources out of the public system and perversely lengthen wait times. Which it absolutely will.
Kate: And we know that this is true because, when the government privatized certain surgeries in the ‘90s, including cataract surgery, the wait list was up to 20% longer for surgeries that took place in private facilities than for surgeries that took place in public ones. Plus all the private facilities ended up actually going bankrupt and having to be bailed out with taxpayer money. So it was a lose-lose-lose situation, except for a couple of rich people who got to make some money off the public healthcare system for a couple years.
Joel: And, basically, this is laying the groundwork for further privatizing the healthcare system in Alberta. The government has put forth a streamlined process for the approval of chartered surgical facilities — so, basically, they’re eroding the edges of the healthcare system as it exists and trying to spin off and privatize the bits that they can while still using public funding to make it happen.
Kate: And this is coming off the back of a review that the government chartered for Alberta Health Services and came out in February called the “Ernst & Young Report,” which basically outlined the specific bits and pieces that they’re looking at privatizing in the healthcare system. So this is: delisting surgeries, privatizing certain types of day surgeries, and also contracting out certain services that are currently provided in-house. So this is all the remaining linen and laundry services that exist in Alberta, primarily in rural Alberta, as well as housekeeping and food services. So, bringing in private contractors to do those jobs as a way to bust unions, decrease wages, take away people’s pensions, and also to give the opportunity to make money off of our public healthcare system.
Tyler: There’s just so much that’s perverse about this strategy, right? So, as Kate just said, it’s weakening unions, it’s taking stable, well-paying jobs away from people and making them much more precarious. It’s also slowly but surely building — or, the ideal is, for the Conservative, that this slowly builds a constituency of people who move from the public system to the private system and all of a sudden start having the thought, “You know what? Why am I paying so much taxes for this healthcare system where I’m not even using it that much?” And you just slowly but surely scrape away little bits of the system at a time and privatize them, and you build up that constituency to the point where, you know, you can hopefully privatize the whole thing, right? It’s not popular to privatize healthcare in Canada, but you can get away with it if you nibble away at the edges. You know, one goernent does a little bit here, the next government does a little bit there, and slowly but surely, you all of a sudden have weakened these institutions so much that they can’t fight back or that public opinion has changed. Because the other thing that’s really important is: the more things that get privatized, the more that a government has an excuse to decrease funding to the existing structure, and as that funding goes down, or as they have the excuse to fund it less, it suffers — the wait times will grow, performance suffers. We already see the mass outrage of doctors with the way they’ve been treated, so you start getting brain drain that we already had in this province decades ago. And, all of a sudden, public healthcare doesn’t seem that great anymore, and it’s much easier to build a base of support that is in favour of more privatization or weakening it further. So it’s just — so many bad things are going to stem from this, and people shouldn’t think of this as just what’s happening with this bill, they need to think of it in the context of a long-term strategy of privatizing healthcare.
Kate: So, up next is one of the bills that is a real doozy and one of the ones that we are going to go into most detail in. And this is Bill 32 — “Fuck Workers,” or whatever the hell it’s actually called — “Restoring Balance in Alberta’s Workplaces.” Sounds fake, but okay.
Joel: Because they were so unbalanced before. Now they’re equally owned by employers and employees, right?
Kate: I can’t believe that they’re restoring balance in Alberta’s workplaces by giving all workers in Alberta guns.
Kate: So cool that they’re doing this for one simple act of legislation. You’ve really got to hand it to them. So the reason that we’re going to spend so much time on this bill is that this bill is a really giant attack on the trade union movement, and workers more generally, in Alberta, and it really paves the way for some serious erosion of the mechanisms that workers like you and me have to actually make gains in our lives and to improve our society. I do think it’s worth spending quite a bit of time on also because it really, quite drastically, accelerates how bad Alberta’s labour laws are. So this bill primarily amends the Employment Standards Code and the Labour Relations Code. The Labour Relations Code was first enacted in 1988. It remained unchanged for almost 30 years. It was amended by the NDP effective the 1st of January 2018 to bring it in line with the other Canadian provinces regarding labour relations laws. And I want to make it really clear here that this change did not make Alberta worker-friendly; it did not have any innovations in worker-friendly legislation, and it didn’t really innovate on anything, despite the fact that labour groups were asking for this.
Joel: Yeah, just to reiterate this point — it didn’t create a worker state at all. It basically just dragged Alberta’s labour laws into the 21st century, matching — roughly — the standards that exist elsewhere in the country.
Kate: Yeah, and Bill 32 not only removes those amendments — that, once again, were basically just bringing Alberta up to Canada’s average — it also rolls things back and has several provisions that likely infringe on freedom of association and freedom of expression — so, our Charter rights. I don’t like the idea of Trump-style labour law, or American-style labour law, but it is a simple fact that this labour legislation is on par with extremely regressive, anti-union, Republican labour legislation in American states. That’s just the truth.
Joel: So, some of the major amendments that it makes includes changes to union financial statements. They must now provide each member with a financial statement of the trade union’s affairs for the preceding fiscal year. Trade unions already share detailed financial information with members, and many allow members to come to the union’s office and review detailed financial records if the member wishes to do so. So this requirement appears to be more about the government interfering with the way trade unions conduct their affairs and undermining the confidence that union members have in their union rather than addressing an actual gap in information that union members actually receive.
Kate: And I want to jump in here and get you to imagine this type of legislation being applied to another organization. So imagine if the government imposed a law that required employers to provide complete financial information to their employees who could share it with the employer’s competitors, the public, or their union. And, you know, maybe this seems reasonable — employees, after all, create the profit and wealth that their employer enjoys, and they have a vested interest in the financial health and the political decisions and the spending habits of their employer. Yet forcing employers to share this type of extremely detailed information with their employees would create an absolute uproar for business councils and the like.
Joel: Another great bit in this Bill 32 is the union dues deduction and opt-in requirements. It divides what unions spend money on into collective-bargaining-related things on one side versus non-collective-bargaining-related issues on the other side. And the trade union is restricted from charging — if you want to use that word — any union dues, assessments, or initiation fees, and from changing the amount or percentage for each of “basket A,” political activities, and “basket B,” collective bargaining or representation activities, until the trade union shares with the members the percentages and amounts and sufficient information with the member to allow the person to make an informed decision for the purposes of an election and any information required by the regulation. So this is — to put it more simply, basically this requires unions to separate out their collective bargaining activities from everything else that they do and then run that by their membership, along with a corresponding percentage of dues being directed each way, and members must opt in to the non-collective-bargaining part in order for the union to get approval to use those funds.
Kate: This is really difficult to do because the mere existence of trade unions is political. It is a political question, and a political idea, that you and your coworkers can come together in a union and you can work together, with each other, to bargain for the control that you have over your workplace and for the things that you want to happen to you in your workplace and the mechanisms you want to govern your workplace. That is a political idea. That is not how everyone thinks a workplace should run — some people think workplaces should basically be mini feudal kingdoms where you check any democracy you might live in at the door. It’s also really difficult to separate them out, because say you’re a union who represents private long-term care workers and you believe that all continuing care should be brought into the public system (which is a position that we’ve argued here on The Alberta Advantage before). Is talking about that “basket A” political activity (because it’s exercising a political demand of your government or health authority) or is a collective bargaining and representation activity (because maybe it’s something you’re trying to incorporate into your collective agreements)? There’s a lot of wiggle room here, and a lot of things are simply not very clear-cut, because the fact of the matter is these things have a reciprocal relationship to each other. It’s not that unions have strictly collective bargaining labour relations representation activities and strictly political activities — everything a trade union does is political. This is also, too, a huge time suck for unions. How it works in practice in the United States, where they have legislation like this, is: unions basically employ staff, or they have their staff organizers, fulfil this function, just calling people up on the phone and asking them to opt in to the political spending that the union wants to do. And this is a massive time suck for their resources that could be better spend doing a lot of other things: running direct action campaigns on your worksite to deal with issues, preparing for strikes, doing bargaining support — you know, there are so many better things that the pooled resources of union members could be going towards, and overall, I think it’s really — like so many other things in the bill, this is really about undermining public confidence in unions, and specifically undermining the confidence that union members were apolitical, not particularly well-connected, having their own unions. My last point here is: this is not how any other institution you remit money to works. When I file my taxes, I can’t be like, “I would like to not pay the war portion, please. I would like to just opt out of any spending on war, please. And also prisons.” I mean, would it be great if I could do that because those things are extremely evil and unethical? Yes, it would be amazing. But that is not how something like that works.
Tyler: One of the things about this is: it seems very technical and jargon-y and, you know, backshop-y. It doesn’t seem like, “Oh, can I quickly draw the line of how that’s going to affect things on a day-to-day?” And that’s kind of the point, is for these things to sound like they’re kind of innocent and sound like they’re enabling more democracy, but really what they’re trying to do is slow things as much as possible and create as many gaps, where people with grievances can make a big issue and really slow things down. I mean, any union — like any group of people — is going to have a broad range of political opinions. There are going to be some people in unions who are actually not in favour of unions, right? This is just a common thing. But the purpose of a union is to act in the greater good of all the employees, regardless of their personal viewpoints, and try to move things forward to make their lives better, easier, more fair, and more democratic. But this allows for those gaps and those spaces to be exploited, and I can guarantee: if this starts happening, we are probably going to hear from the UCP when there are specific examples of, “Hey, this employee — we gave them this right that they shouldn’t have to have their union dues go to political goals, but they’re being pressured into opting in when they should have the democratic right not to.” These are the stories that are going to start coming out — and again, the purpose is to slowly weaken the already-weak viewpoint of unions, which has been a long project, and this is just a continuation of that.
Kate: And I think it’s really telling that the horror stories that Jason Kenney could come up with to push forward this legislation were things like trade unions signing onto the Leap Manifesto, or trade unions supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement — both of which are pretty great and pretty cool and, as a union member, I would frankly love if my union signed onto the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel movement. But I also want to make the point that that is not what most of the political activities of unions are, and not a lot of what will be caught up in this legislation. You know, this legislation is so broad and so regressive that, you know, you could work for a nurse’s union in Alberta and be talking about the importance of public healthcare, and that could be deemed “basket A” political activity because it’s not strictly about collective bargaining. So I think unions are going to have to get really creative with how they deal with this legislation. A personal favourite idea of mine is that you should just put everything you would possibly want to talk about on the table during collective bargaining, and then it’s like, “Well, it’s related to bargaining, so we can talk about it whenever we want. Technically ‘basket B.’” But I think there’s going to need to be a lot of creativity going into this, and obviously I think this is one of the things that will be challenged in the courts.
Joel: And one last point — this is structurally very similar to what the Harper government did with charities and trying to monitor/restrict their political work, or the extent to which they could do political work. I believe the rule was, like, only 10% of your charitable activity — or funding or whatever — could go toward political activity. So you’ve basically burdened every charity-status organization with closely monitoring all its funding and indexing, very closely, what activity it did that could be deemed political. And it was very much for the same effect — it’s basically to burden these organizations with cumbersome self-monitoring that’s very ill-defined, which has the net effect of preventing political critique.
Kate: Also in Bill 32 is that picketing is now basically illegal, unfortunately. Delaying someone on a picket line for even one minute is now flat-out illegal. And I want to take this opportunity to express what I think is a really common misconception about picket lines, is: a lot of people — including people within trade unions — believe that the purpose of a picket is to persuade people. Perhaps it is to persuade your coworkers from not crossing that picket line and continuing to work during a job action. Perhaps it is for persuading a nebulous public to support you, or persuading consumers, or users of the service, to not utilize that service or purchase things at that business. But that’s not actually true, although that is a side effect of a lot of picketing. The purpose of picketing is to interrupt, through the presence of a picket line, the normal operation — and, oftentimes, the profits — of wherever you are picketing. You know, a picket line is not a parade. It is not just a fun little show that you’re doing. It is about creating a real disruption in profit-generating businesses. It is about disrupting the profit generation of that business; you know, preventing a grocery store chain, for example, from being able to make money by having the staff who make them that money work there. In the case of, say, a public service, it is about disrupting the operation of a service — say, K-12 education or healthcare services — in order to create a crisis with social repercussions for the government so they’re forced to come to the table and actually bargain with you in a place where you have power and in a position where you have leverage. And at the heart of how Bill 32 talks about picketing is attacking the picket as a place of leverage and a place of power, not as a place of persuasion. You know, if the picket line was just meant to be a fun parade that people could look at from their cars and peacefully persuade people, it wouldn’t be an issue. But that’s not what a picket truly is, and that’s why Bill 32’s restrictions on picketing are so deeply problematic.
Joel: Secondary picketing is also illegal under this, which is odd because picketing and secondary picketing are Charter-protected rights. New provisions restrict unions from picketing at premises where employers have moved work or the premise of employer allies. In conjunction with Bill 1, this could potentially make picketing subject to fines of $1000 a day, which is quite bad. And before there were no explicit restrictions on picketing, so it was up to the authority of individual police officers — which is not necessarily great — but now it’s in black and white, which is worse.
Kate: It definitely puts into writing these really, really explicit restrictions, which also gives the courts, police officers, and the Alberta Labour Relations board a lot more power to deal with picketing, whereas before it really was a much more case-by-case basis. You know, absolutely employers would get injunctions that would force picketers to abide to restrictions on picketing, but it was a much slower process, and it was also a much more malleable process, whereas this is very set in stone. Changes have also been introduced to first-contact arbitration. So, what first-contact arbitration is is that, if you are what is known as a new bargaining unit — so, you and your coworkers have just come together, you’ve decided to form a union at your workplace — and you’re now bargaining for what’s your first contract. First contracts are really difficult to get because they’re basically the baseline for every other contract you’re going to negotiate. When you’re negotiating your seventh, eighth, ninth, twentieth contract, you’re oftentimes making tweaks or adjustments, sometimes introducing new things to the collective bargaining agreement that you already have. But when you’re doing that first one, it can be a really intense and really drawn-out process. What first-contact arbitration is is that it puts both parties — the workers, as represented by their union, and their boss, and their employer — into binding arbitration. So it means that an arbitrator looks at this and then they make recommendations that are binding on both parties — so, they’re mandatory. This is not always great — it really prevents the inability to have novel language in collective agreements, and it can really take a lot of momentum out of organizing drive — but it can also be really, really powerful, especially for smaller bargaining units that just don’t have a lot of leverage and power if they were to go on strike, or work sites that are not super well-organized and wouldn’t actually be able to go on strike for a really good collective agreement, because what most arbitration will do is it will just look at all the other collective agreements in your industry and give you a status quo agreement. So that is how first-contract arbitration currently works. But how it will work after Bill 32 is, instead of being a pretty standard thing that is utilized in first contracts — and I should say this was brought in by NDP changes to the labour code — is it will be something that is much, much more difficult for workers to get and much, much easier for employers to get. So, basically, there has to be a refusal to meet to bargain, a refusal to recognize the authority of the other party, a failure to make reasonable effort, and no other reasonable remedy. So this is actually worse — even though it might not sound like it — than if they just scrapped first-contract arbitration altogether because it gives employers the upper hand. So if a union complains about the process, it’s tough shit, but as soon as they would try to make moves towards a strike, they’re going to get hit by first-contract arbitration by the employer. So it really kind of restricts the abilities of a trade union in negotiating a first contract without the previous, frankly, benefit of being able to fairly easily get first-contract arbitration.
Joel: There are also some pretty hefty penalties for illegal strikes. For example, due suspension as punishment for illegal strikes. The Labour Relations Board may direct an employer to suspend dues deductions for up to six months if there’s an illegal strike, which basically means if a strike happens, and you’re a union, and it’s illegal, the Labour Relations Board can say, “Hey, you don’t have an income for six months.” Cool.
Tyler: Yeah, imagine what it would look like if the reverse was true, if large corporations were caught breaking rules or doing things that the government deemed illegal. You know, we could think of examples after the 2008 financial crisis where companies were essentially let off the hook. If the government came along and said, “Hey, for the next six months, we’re actually going to triple the income tax, or the business tax, that we’re going to deduct from your company as punishment,” instead of the very small hand-slap fines that were handed out. This is just so utterly crippling for an organization like a union to be put in this position where they could essentially see all of their funding dry up for a period of time.
Joel: Can you imagine if they did this for every time an employer kills a worker through neglect or anything else? Like —
Kate: That would be cool as hell.
Joel: Like, oh, you killed a worker? Guess you have to forfeit any income and profits for the next six months. Too bad, so sad. You’re going to have to carry on as an organization. It would be cool if they did, but completely generally unthinkable. So the fact that they’re aiming this big gun at unions is pretty remarkable and outrageous.
Kate: The other really big and pretty bad change that has been made to how illegal strikes would be adjudicated is in terms of the courts. So, as part of Bill 32, it says changes are being proposed so that illegal strikes, lockouts, and pickets must be filed with the courts immediately if one of the parties in the dispute requests it. This basically speeds up the process by which a wildcat strike or an illegal strike would go to court. And this is very dangerous because normally what happens is that an illegal strike is going to go, first, to the Alberta Labour Relations board. And while the Alberta Labour Relations Board can absolutely declare a strike illegal, they have pretty limited punishment mechanisms — or, at least, they did. They might instruct a union to put a piece of paper up on the union board saying that they’re very sorry and they won’t do it again, things like that. But the courts can start to levy fines, they can start to pass injunctions with the risk of jail time. They can start to also fine individual workers, individual union staffers or members — pretty much anyone, even members of the public. So it speeds up the process by which the punitive mechanisms of the state can come down on unions that engage in collective action outside of the very, very, very narrow constraints of labour law.
Joel: Seems bad.
Kate: Yeah. Shit sucks, man.
Joel: What kind of responses have we seen from spokespeople out in the media?
Kate: I’ve seen people largely fall into two camps, both of which are fairly frustrating and incomplete to me. One is the “Everything is doomed, so we should give up and die” camp, and the other is that “When things are bad, everyone will magically become more radical and more militant, and that’s how we’re going to solve the problem.” The first camp, I think, is really [laughs] well exemplified by, unfortunately, the Alberta Federation of Labour, who sent out an email saying that, if Bill 32 passes, workers will lose their voice. And I find this really frustrating for a bunch of reasons. The first is that the UCP is a majority government, so Bill 32 is absolutely going to pass the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, and pretending otherwise is knowingly being ignorant of the way the political process works and the way power works, and I think that is doing a disservice to their affiliates and to union members who are affiliated with the Alberta Federation of Labour. I also think it’s wrong because the government doesn’t decide how and when workers fight back. The government doesn’t decide how and when workers go on strike — workers do. And when workers come together and they’re ready to fight in their unions, they can make decisions outside of these constraints. And workers are very powerful. And I feel like sometimes this is something that doesn’t get said enough — the public doesn’t settle strikes, workers having power is what settles strikes. You know, if every registered nurse in Alberta magically went on strike — like, if I had a big red button I could push and make that happen — yeah, the public might hate them. Yeah, people might drive past them on picket lines and spit at them. [laughs] It’s happened to me on picket lines in Alberta before. But, at the end of the day, they would have a lot of power — they provide an extremely critical service, extremely critical infrastructure, and they are, in large numbers, functionally irreplaceable, so they would probably be able to have enough power to negotiate their demands and, also, to prevent the consequences that we’ve outlined from Bill 32. Like I said earlier — police enforcement, prosecution: these are political questions, and it is the task of workers to make these types of laws unenforceable. That said, I want to make it clear that I don’t think this is magically going to happen. I think sometimes it can be a tendency on the left, and a bit of a lie that we tell ourselves, that, when things get bad, people will understand that, “We can’t go back to business as usual! We can’t just keep doing things the way we were doing them! Now is the time to become more radical, to take more militant action!” And absolutely that is what I believe, that is how I believe unions should conduct themselves in the face of this legislation — to me, it indicates that the broken labour relations system is becoming even more broken and we need to find new ways of doing things, new ways of being threats to power, but I don’t think it’s magically going to happen. I don’t think bureaucratic unions that are committed to doing things within the confines of the law are magically going to become more militant and more radical. I’m not trying to foreclose off on that possibility, but I don’t want people to think that bad things happening gives people better politics. If you [laughs] look at labour history in North America for the past 30, 40, 50 years, there’s no example of that. If that’s true, then why don’t we have an amazingly strong American labour movement? And it’s because that just isn’t true.
Tyler: Yeah, one of the things that these points, I think — especially the first point about the position saying, “Well, if this passes, it’s over for the labour movement,” — that is kind of dangerous is: I think the intention there is — well, obviously, to strike fear in people who are, maybe, sympathetic to labour more generally — but I think there’s also this thing happening where they’re trying to get at conservatives and either shame them or make them realize the error of their ways. And the people who are either dyed-in-the-wool conservative voters — or, certainly, the conservative politicians themselves, and donors — they’re not going to be shamed into not doing what they are setting out to do. And it’s also a miscalculation to think that, if we just explain this to them and make them realize how bad this is, they’ll realize the error of their ways and they’ll come to our side. They are not stupid — they know exactly what they’re doing, they’re very smart and canny, even though they have ideas we don’t like, and we’re not going to be able to just make a big red flashing light that there is going to make them notice and take stock of what they’re doing and suddenly have a moment of retrospection. That’s just not going to happen. So there has to be a better way of messaging this that actually gets this across to people, I think, in a less — maybe a less woeful way, or a way that’s not preying on desperation so much.
Joel: Yeah, the risk is that, in trying to mobilize people with this threat, you discourage them and make them check out, right?
Tyler: Yeah, and you’re certainly not going to have discouraging effects on the conservatives on this, so you’re kind of doing the double whammy of: it’s not having any impact on conservatives and you might actually be actively turning off people who are on your side by using this kind of messaging.
Kate: Yeah, and the fact of the matter is that most workers period, and especially most workers in Alberta, don’t have an experience of fighting and winning. So that is the muscle we need to work on and a muscle we need to build. It’s all very well and good to know that we have power, but if you’re never exercising that power and you’ve never actually been able to fight and win, then when someone comes to you and says, “Everything is really bad, we’re fucked, we’re going to lose our voice,” you’re just going to be like, “Damn, shit sucks. I’m going to focus on the parts of my life that don’t suck and that are enjoyable,” instead of what the messaging, in my opinion, should be, which is — “This is really bad, and this is really scary. This is how we can fight and win. This is how we know it’s going to work and how people have done it in the past, and this is what you need to do.” You know, it’s a pretty simple formula, it’s not rocket science. And I want to say — if you’re a union member in Alberta and your union is not preparing for strikes in the face of extremely regressive anti-labour legislation like this, your union is accepting that you will have to eat the worst of what Jason Kenney has planned for working people in Alberta, and i would seriously suggest that you take that up with them.
Joel: Another interesting feature that has cropped up in a lot of the coverage of all these legislative changes from the UCP has been the shock, the horror, the kind of pearl-clutching impulse, “I can’t believe they’re moving so fast, I can’t believe they’re doing all these things.” All these things were in their platform and they basically said they were going to do them. They’re maybe speeding things up in a few cases, but this was absolutely their plan, and they wrote a lot of it down prior to the election. So it shouldn’t come as that much of a shock. I realize if you’re aiming for clicks, maybe the pretend shock is a way of framing it in a way that might generate attention, but, truly, this isn’t a big shock. They said they were going to do all these things when they got themselves elected.
Kate: I also want to provide a rebuttal to an idea that I see fairly frequently, which is the idea that we’ll just sort this all out in the courts. And I think it absolutely true that a lot of what is specifically in Bill 1 and in Bill 32 is unconstitutional, is against the Charter — and with these pieces of legislation in particular, we actually have an almost-guarantee that they are unconstitutional — the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a law in Saskatchewan on secondary picketing very recently that is very similar to the one that is included in Bill 32. Legal opinions solicited by unions have been pretty clear that Bill 32, in particular, presents a real significant challenge to the freedom of association and freedom of expression that are Charter-guaranteed rights in Canada. So, you know, absolutely, a lot of these things are flat-out illegal, they will almost certainly be proven to be illegal when they wind their way through the court system, but a) this is a really big use of resources for unions to commit all of this money, time, energy, to these big legal fights, and it’s also very demobilizing, you know, what makes political questions like this the terrain of experts. And something that Guy Smith, who is the president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, said recently, that I thought was the best articulation of it from the leader of a mainstream trade union in Alberta, is that, “I’m sure Bill 32 will get tested in the courts, but the damage will be done long before the courts decide on things, and that’s why we have to take job action on our work sites, where we have the power.” And I think that’s a really good way of articulating it, is that, when these things go through the courts, they’re very time-consuming, they demobilize people, they depoliticize people, and people start to accept that this is just the way things are, so even when it does get struck down as against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the damage has already been done. And I think that’s why it’s incumbent to start seeing this as a terrain of struggle and a terrain of power and to engage in activities that are focused on building up power. So I definitely think, you know, the courts are a great weapon, they are one of the many tactics that social movements, civil society, trade unions can use in their fights against repressive, reactionary conservative governments, but they cannot be the only way of doing things. If the labour movement continues to look at situations and think, not “How can we fight,” but “How can we do this strictly within the confines of the law,” they will continue to lose.
Tyler: Yeah, I mean, the law’s very slow. And it’s also worth noting that the conservative governments know all of this. They know that they’re passing things that are unconstitutional — again, they are not stupid. But to Guy Smith’s point, they know that it’s still going to be effective because, until this makes its way all the way through all the courts to the Supreme Court and gets struck down, that’s going to be a long time, and the impacts are going to happen. So, again, it’s not like this thing where we can catch them in, “Oh, gotcha! You did this and it was illegal. Haha, you’re naughty.” They know this, and they’re doing this on purpose still. So keep that in mind when you’re trying to consider what kind of an enemy we’re dealing with here.
Kate: The labour movement has a real choice before it right now. If you are a worker whose job is at risk of being contracted out, you can either get fired in your manager’s office or you can try and fight on a picket line. And you know what? You might win, and you might get fired on that picket line, but if you do nothing, it is a guarantee that you will get fucked. And I think, as someone who has been involved in the labour movement in some form or another in a bunch of different countries my entire life, I would rather see the labour movement go down fighting these types of laws, would go down fighting for working people, than get destroyed by technicalities in the courts by lawyers, by all of these laws. You know, if you’re okay with everything that we’ve outlined in this episode, then great! You don’t have to do anything because, if you don’t do anything, it will happen; but if you’re not okay with this, you need to talk with your coworkers about this and you need to take action, and you need to take action at a place where you have power, and that is your work site. And I know that is a bit of an intense way to end a podcast episode, but it is the truth of the situation that we’re in right now in Alberta, and we don’t do ourselves any favours by telling lies about it.
Tyler: Yeah, and maybe one other point to make as well is: if you are not someone who is in a union, or your workplace is not organized, you’re listening to this thinking, “What can I do?” — pay attention to what unions in the province are doing. Keep your eyes peeled for any chances that you can get involved; get involved and share your time, share your resources, whatever you can do to help these fights. Go to picket lines. We’ve talked about this before on the podcast, but it’s honestly a very good feeling to be there in solidarity, and it matters when people show up en masse, and especially if they’re not even related to what’s happening. That groundswell of support is really important, I think, for the workers to see, who are actually taking the biggest risks of all. And it’s good for the government to see, as well, that more people are getting involved than just the workers who are being directly impacted. Solidarity is something that we talk about on the Left all the time — well, if you’re interested in that concept, now’s the time to show it.
Kate: There are also a bunch of civil society groups, you know, that exist in Alberta that are going to be really impacted by a lot of the things that we’ve mentioned here. Our fine friends at Climate Justice Edmonton, groups like Friends of Medicare, Public Interest Alberta. I totally understand and really empathize that Alberta does not have, maybe, an incredibly amazing, vibrant left political scene, but any little thing you can do here and there — and I think most people on the podcast, like me, have spent most of their political life in Alberta hopping from small thing to small thing just trying to give where you can. It adds up, and it does make a difference, and it is what is going to be necessary.
Joel: From all of us here at The Alberta Advantage —
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