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New Alberta bill proposes significant overhaul of labour, employment rules

Wednesday, July 15, 2020 @ 9:52 AM | By Ian Burns

Alberta is looking at changing the rules governing labour and employment requirements in the province with an aim to reduce red tape and support economic recovery, but the proposals have earned the derision of provincial labour leaders, who characterize the changes as “union busting” which will lead to Alberta taking on the characteristics of a U.S.-style “right-to-work” jurisdiction.  

The Restoring Balance in Alberta’s Workplaces Act, also known as Bill 32, amends the provincial labour relations and employment standards code which creates new rules for general holiday pay and group terminations, amends provisions on rest periods and temporary layoff notices, updates requirements on union certification and revocation, and gives the ability to union members to opt out of having their dues fund political activities and causes.

Provincial Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping said the bill will support economic recovery and get Albertans back to work, especially in light of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the provincial government, the legislation would save job creators an estimated $100 million per year by reducing red tape from daily operations.

“With so many Albertans out of work and so many businesses uncertain about their future we need to ensure our labour laws are balanced, and support businesses through economic recovery so that they can keep their doors open and Albertans can retain their jobs,” he said. “Bill 32 will provide employees and job creators with clearer and more transparent rules promoting fairness and productivity. We are balancing employee rights with the need to protect businesses and the economy while ensuring Albertans can access critical services they have come to rely on.”

Grant Hunter, Alberta’s associate minister of red tape reduction, said the province needs to support job creators as businesses reopen.

“We told Albertans we would get them back to work and make it easier to do business in Alberta,” he said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing by cutting this unneeded red tape.”

But the bill was met with derision from the Alberta Federation of Labour, who called it a “fundamental attack on worker rights and democracy.” AFL president Gil McGowan said the bill is really about “tipping the scales of power in favour” towards the Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) and its donors.

“[The government says] this is about choice and freedom and efficiency. They say this is about removing red tape and creating jobs. But that’s just more spin and gaslighting from a government that has taken spin and gaslighting to new heights,” he said. “The UCP’s new labour law will weaken the bargaining power of Alberta workers, by dropping the floor of rights for non-union workers and by tying the hands of unionized workers. And, in the process, it will set off a race-to-the-bottom, in terms of wages and workplace rights.”

McGowan said the government “clearly hopes Alberta workers will be so weakened, in fact, that they’ll have no choice but to take whatever employers and governments give them — no matter how unfair or inadequate that might be.”

“With the introduction of Bill 32, Jason Kenney is following in the footsteps of right-wing Republican governors who he idolizes. Over the past 40 years, these anti-worker politicians have passed so-called right-to-work laws that starve unions of funds,” he said. “American states with right-to-work laws have lower wages, higher levels of inequality, poorer safety standards, crappier public services and weaker economies (because people have less money to spend).”

And the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Alberta called the bill “union busting.”

“Mr. Kenney, we will see you in court,” CUPE Alberta posted on its website. “In the meantime, CUPE will continue to focus our efforts on the damage Mr. Kenney is doing to our economy, education, health care and to our pensions. That is what Albertans care about, and it’s what our members care about.”

Jonathon Ward, DLA Piper

Jonathon Ward, a labour and employment lawyer with DLA Piper in Calgary, said the biggest things that jump out to him in terms of the impact of Bill 32 are the revisions to averaging arrangements, which allow employers to schedule an employee or group of employees to work longer hours per day, and rule changes to make it easier for employers to apply for variances and exemptions to legislative requirements.

“Currently we don’t see a lot of exemption or variance requests concerning employment standards legislation, and where we do it is almost exclusively large organizations with significant legal and/or human resources horsepower,” he said. “I think there is room to use these requests to get tailored solutions for specific issues facing small and medium sized enterprises, and I think that would be a really positive step towards addressing the impracticality of the one-size-fits-all approach that we see in employment standards legislation.”

Another change that Ward views as significant is specifying when remedial certification, which allows for a union to be certified as the bargaining agent for a group of employees despite failing to demonstrate that a majority of employees are in favour of unionization, can be used.

“I think this is a positive change because remedial certification is a significant remedy and it bypasses a lot of checks and balances, so it really should be reserved for those instances where the [labour relations] board determines that nothing else be appropriate,” he said.

But Ward also noted the bill would roll back some of the changes to the labour and employment regime brought in by Alberta’s previous NDP government, which can cause confusion for employee and employer alike.

“Where there is a reduction of formal, prescriptive requirements it is easier for employers to adapt,” he said. “But it costs a lot of money and employee bandwidth to adapt to new labour and employment frameworks. There is value in positive change, but to change so frequently that employers can’t get solid footing under them presents its own challenge and makes it slower for employers to adapt.”

The bill is currently before the Alberta legislature. More information can be found here.

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