2005 November Speaking Notes AFL First Contract Arbitration Campaign - Support the change that brings workplace peace!

Gil McGowan, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, November 14, 2005

Good morning and welcome.

My name is Gil McGowan and I'm the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

We're here today largely because of a strike that captured public attention not only here in Alberta, but across the country.

It was a strike that shocked us; angered us; and pulled at our heart strings.

It was also a strike that did not have to happen. In fact, it was a strike that would not have happened in almost any other Canadian jurisdiction.

The strike I'm talking about, of course, is the strike that recently came to an end at the Lakeside meatpacking plant in Brooks.

For those of us in the Alberta labour movement, the Lakeside strike was significant because it was about rights that most working people take for granted.

Like the right to go to the bathroom when you need to.

Like the right to see a doctor when you're injured on the job.

Like the right to actually get paid for all the work you do.

But the Lakeside strike was also important because it highlighted a major weakness in our province's system of labour laws.

In particular, the Lakeside strike reminded us of what happens when you have laws with loopholes.

It reminded us of what happens when you have laws that ignore easy-to-predict problems - and laws that don't give people "on the ground" the options they need to deal with problems.

That's why we're here today - to talk about the lessons of Lakeside - and how we can learn from those lessons.

The big lesson that we think needs to be taken from the experience at Brooks is that we need some form of first contract arbitration here in Alberta.

It's commonly known in labour relations circles that first contracts are the most difficult contracts to negotiate - mostly because the two sides haven't built a relationship. They haven't yet found ways to live together and to prosper together. This often leads to hostility and conflict.

Recognizing this problem, most provinces have adopted laws that provide for an independent third party to step in and settle first contract disputes when they've bogged down and have the potential to get dangerous.

The federal labour code makes provisions for first contract arbitration. So do the labour codes in B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island.

Eighty percent of Canadians live in jurisdictions that have first contract arbitration. Only Alberta, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick don't have it.

The reason so many provinces have chosen to adopt these laws is because they make sense - and because they work.

I think we can all agree that the goal in labour relations should be to settle disputes and reach fair agreements without recourse to nasty strikes. If that's the goal then the record from provinces that have first contract arbitration speaks for itself.

In 2002, the last year for which complete statistics are available, 41 first-contract strikes were avoided in B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario alone. 41 strikes that could have been ugly like the strike at Lakeside didn't happen because of first contract arbitration.

The really frustrating thing about our Labour Code here in Alberta is that it actually encourages confrontation. Under the Alberta Code, if no collective agreement has been reached 10 months after a union has been certified, an application to decertify that union can be filed. So for employers who want to bust the union, all they have to do is drag their feet in bargaining, wait for the clock to run out, and then push for a decertification vote.

Union members know this - so when they strike for a first agreement, those strikes tend to be even more bitter and acrimonious than usual because they are literally strikes for survival.

First contract arbitration would allow us to avoid this kind of bitterness and conflict. It would promote negotiation and discourage confrontation.

That's what happens in provinces that have first contract laws. Just knowing that an arbitrator could step in and impose a deal, encourages the parties to negotiate. In the 41 cases I mentioned earlier of strikes that had been avoided in other provinces, 31 were actually settled through negotiation after the arbitration process had been started because the parties wanted to avoid an imposed deal.

So the evidence shows that first contract arbitration works and makes good policy sense. But, you know what? It also makes good politics.

Near the end of the Lakeside strike, the AFL and the United Food and Commercial Workers commissioned a large province-wide poll of 800 Albertans.

The results of that poll are in your press kit. What it showed was that 61 percent of Albertans supported the idea of bringing first contract arbitration to Alberta. Even among self-identified Tory voters, more than 60 percent said they either supported or strongly supported the idea.

So when people ask me: can we avoid future Lakesides? I say: you bet we can!

There's a mechanism out there that we know can help us cool temperatures in first agreement disputes. It's been tested and proven in other provinces. And it's supported by the majority of people here in Alberta. First Contract Arbitration is a good idea whose time has come. All that's missing is the political will to put it into practice.

If we had first contract arbitration in Alberta we could have avoided Lakeside.

We could have avoided the $1.8 million tab for policing.

We could have avoided the picket line clashes.

We could have avoided the smash-up derby that almost killed the union president.

We could have avoided the anxiety and financial losses sustained by the ranching community.

We could have avoided splitting the town of Brooks down the middle.

And it's not just about Lakeside. Over the past few years there have been other nasty first contract disputes that also could have been avoided. Like the Shaw Conference Centre Strike in Edmonton. Like the Calgary Herald strike in Calgary.

The bottom line is that our labour law is broken and it needs to be fixed. If we don't seize this opportunity and take advantage of the momentum that's been building behind the idea of bringing first contract arbitration to Alberta, then it's not a question of "if" we're going to see more Lakesides, it's just a question of "when."

That's why the Alberta Federation of Labour is launching this campaign today. It's a campaign that's supported by most of the major unions in the province including, to name just a few: the United Food and Commercial Workers, who represent the workers at Lakeside; the United Nurses of Alberta; the Health Sciences Association of Alberta; the Canadian Autoworkers; the Communication Energy Paperworkers union; the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Alberta Teachers Association and the Alberta Building Trades.

Starting today, we will be running radio ads across the province urging our provincial government to bring first contract arbitration to Alberta.

We will be distributing leaflets to the public. We will be meeting with groups outside the labour movement and urging them to get on board. We will be talking to the media. We will be lobbying MLAs.

The good news is that we've off to a running start. As most of you know, some members of government are already talking about first contract arbitration.

Lyle Oberg has said it might be a good idea. Premier Klein said it might be a possibility. And just last Thursday I met with Human Resources Minister Mike Cardinal and he gave me his personal commitment that public hearings will be held on the issue.

I've also been given a date in February to appear before the government's standing policy committee on Education and Human Resources to make the case for first contract arbitration.

All of this is encouraging. But, given this government's track record on labour issues, we know we can't simply wait for members of cabinet to do the right thing.

The only reason first contract arbitration is even the table right now is because Lakeside was on the front page almost constantly for more than a month. Politicians move when they feel the heat - and with this campaign we hope to keep the heat on.

In the end, what we're asking for is a relatively small change. We've included excerpts from other provincial labour codes in your press kits - so you can see that this issue can be dealt with in as little as half a page. With the Legislature reconvening tomorrow, I can't think of a better time to fix the problem that has been so dramatically highlighted for us by the strike at Lakeside.

First contract arbitration won't eliminate all strikes. But it will help us avoid some of the worst strike - the ones most likely to spill into the streets and onto the front pages.

It's a small change, but one that - if implemented - could go a long way to promoting workplace peace in the province. And that's a goal we think is worth striving for.

Given the lessons that we've learned from Lakeside, we think the time has come to fix about Alberta's broken labour law. The time has come to support the change that brings workplace peace. The time has come to bring first contract arbitration to Alberta.

Thank you.


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