Jason Kenney has accelerated his government’s war on the working class in the wake of the current economic crisis. Bill 32 is a wholesale attack on hard-fought democratic rights and the existence of the union movement as a whole. If this law passes, it will set a terrible precedent which capitalist governments all over Canada will follow. It is therefore imperative that the labour movement across the whole country mobilize to stop this attack in its tracks.
Bill 32, named The Restoring Balance in Alberta’s Workplaces Act, is supposedly aimed at eliminating red tape to support economic recovery. Jason Copping, the UCP labour minister, argues that the bill will reverse “significant changes” to labour law which apparently “pushed the balance toward the union side”. A short look at the contents of Bill 32 reveals that the UCP are dead set on gutting workers’ rights and crushing any resistance workers try to put up with their trade unions.
Peppered throughout the bill are a litany of changes which amend six different labour laws, all of which enrich or strengthen the bosses at the expense of working people. For example, under Bill 32, the bosses would be able to use an “hours of work averaging arrangement” with a period of up to a year. This would allow the capitalists to tinker with work scheduling to ensure that any employee who works overtime never gets overtime pay. These agreements did exist before, but the period was limited to 12 weeks and required employees to sign on. Now the so-called “agreement” can be imposed by the bosses. This is coupled with more work scheduling “flexibility” for employers. In other words, your boss can change your schedule on a whim.
This change would be a big blow for workers in Alberta as overtime is a huge part of revenue. Work in the oil and gas industry as well as many other jobs have a reputation of being hard, difficult, and even dangerous work, with long hours and lots of overtime, meaning higher wages. Last summer, the UCP gave the bosses a hand by allowing banked overtime hours to be paid out at a regular rate, robbing some workers of their well deserved time-and-a-half pay. Now, they are coming for the rest of it.
In addition, Bill 32 means that workers will take home less in general holiday pay, deductions from paycheques can be made without written permission from the employee, and a fired worker’s last cheque can be sent as late as a month after their last day of work. Previously it had to be sent within three days. Another “cost-saver” for the bosses is a change to the length of temporary layoffs, increased from 60 to 90 days. This allows bosses to avoid paying termination pay, putting workers in limbo. If the bosses still need to skirt the rules, Bill 32 allows more “flexibility” for bosses to get exceptions to labour laws. And if the bosses still somehow manage to break a law or two? The UCP plans to lower the fines they would pay. All of these small changes increase the stranglehold bosses have over workers’ pay, working conditions, and lives. So much for “balance”.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley said, “The UCP themselves acknowledge roughly $100 million of costs will be eliminated. But make no mistake. What they mean is that’s $100 million of wages that won’t be paid to people in the form of overtime, vacation pay, those kinds of things.”
But the worst part of Bill 32 is the measures aimed at the organizations with the ability to fight these attacks: the unions. For example, Bill 32 will make Alberta the only province requiring union members to “opt in” to having some of their dues go to “political activities.” This change hides behind a veil of personal choice and rights. The justification given states, “These changes ensure transparency and protect workers who don’t want their dues going to ideological causes.” This is rich coming from the UCP, who everyone knows is squarely in the back pocket of the oil bosses.
In reality this is a “right-to-work”-style change meant to undermine trade unions, the NDP, and the working class as a whole. The capitalists have all of the time and money on their hands to control politics and have done so forever. A party like the UCP is financed to the teeth by the Albertan capitalists and there even exists American-style “super PACs” which allow capitalists to get around campaign financing laws and independently campaign for pro-capitalist candidates.
The entire point of this attack is to hamper any organized working class resistance on the political plane and sow internal divisions within the trade unions.
Bill 32 also makes it harder to form a union. It eliminates any sort of timeline for certification votes, leaving it up to the whims of the Alberta Labour Relations Board which has not changed its website design since 2005. It also removes automatic union certification as a potential penalty when a company is found to be guilty of breaking labour laws, and finally, makes it easy for the labour board to overturn arbitration decisions.
Probably the most draconian part of Bill 32 is that it essentially puts an end to picket lines and therefore strikes altogether. Bill 32 states: “Obstructing or impeding a person who wishes to cross a picket line from crossing the picket line is a wrongful act.” Enabling people to cross picket lines renders a strike essentially meaningless, as the power of a strike precisely lies in its ability to shut down a worksite.
Combined with the UCP’s anti-protest law Bill 1, which bans protesting on “essential infrastructure”—which could include anything from a railway to a sidewalk—the right to protest in any real sense would be revoked. The entire point of a picket line is to obstruct and impede. This is the best source of leverage the workers have in a labour dispute. If they cannot impede the bosses from carrying on with scab labour, they have no hope to win.
To add insult to injury, any secondary picket will have to get approval from the labor board before taking place. In a sad stroke of irony, Copping actually did admit that Bill 32 would create some “red tape”—but only for unions, none for the so-called “job creators”.
And to put the cherry on the cake, the UCP want to bring back child labour. Thirteen and 14-year-olds are now being thrown into the workforce, though it is unclear if they will be supplied headlamps at the coal mine or if they have to bring their own. When this was announced, one reporter asked the labour minister: Won’t this put children at risk? Mr. Copping proceeded to explain that, “We fully expect parents to be involved with their kids in terms of, you know, where they are working and what they can do. So, you know, we’ll be able to manage it that way, through inspections and through complaints…”. This is absurd. Which 13-year-olds are going to look for work in his mind? In reality, the parents of the kids getting a job at 13 are likely working multiple jobs themselves, and don’t have the time or means to supervise the safety of their child working the graveyard shift in front of the fryer at McDonald’s.
If the UCP wants to drag labour relations back to the 19th century, we need to revive the militant labour traditions that won overtime, the right to strike, and abolished child labour in the first place. These rights were not given to us by the bosses after a rational debate or a legal challenge. They were won through mass mobilization and defying unjust laws used to defend the capitalists’ interests. Many workers were injured, jailed and blacklisted in these struggles. Some even died.
The UCP cannot be allowed to claw back rights which the workers of the past have paid for in blood. We must fight this anti-democratic anti-union law, and the UCP themselves have indicated exactly how that should be done: Kenney is banning picket lines, solidarity strikes, and protests on “essential infrastructure” because he knows that this is exactly what it takes to defeat him.
In response to Bill 32, Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) President Gil McGowan said, “We will fight on the political stage, we will fight in the courts, and if necessary, we will fight in the streets”. It should be clear at this point that it is necessary to fight in the streets. Legal challenges filed by unions against the UCP have had no effect on Kenney’s attacks. It will be years and years until these cases are resolved, in which time Kenney will have used these laws to break the back of organized labour and rig the next election.
This time the stakes have been substantially raised. If allowed to pass, Bill 32 could set a destructive precedent for the entire Canadian labour movement. After World War II, right-to-work legislation spread in the U.S. from one state to another. Since then, it has rendered once-powerful labour organizations impotent. Between 1983 and 2015, the American union membership rate was cut in half, from 20.1 per cent to 11.1 per cent. As a result, American workers have had their wages stagnate, costs increase, and living conditions worsen. This cannot be permitted in Canada. The Alberta working class must curb this undemocratic anti-worker government where it stands, no matter how many rules they try to throw at us.
The AFL needs to begin a series of escalating actions to disrupt the implementation of Bill 32. Under no condition should this law be allowed to pass without mass opposition. Jason Kenney is one of the most unpopular politicians in Canada, and he can be defeated. Local and province-wide actions are needed, with mass demonstrations leading to partial and sectoral strikes. The trade union movement across Canada must also take action to mobilize against Kenney, because if this law is normalized it will spread to other provinces and federally. If these actions are not enough to stop Kenney, then the AFL should begin preparing a one-day general strike to defeat the law. The UCP is trying to make the workers pay for the coming COVID-triggered depression. Instead we need to turn around this attack, kick out Kenney, and make the bosses pay for the crisis they created.