Unions and workers across Alberta should brace themselves for a fight because next year will probably be Ralph Klein's "year of retribution" against organized labour, says Audrey Cormack, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
In her annual Labour Day message, Cormack predicted that the Klein government will soon introduce changes to Alberta's labour laws that will make it even more difficult for workers to join unions and for unions to effectively represent their members.
"We already have the most regressive labour laws in the country - laws that stack the deck in favour of employers at the expense of workers," says Cormack. "But that hasn't stopped certain people within government and the business community from lobbying for even more backward laws. They won't be satisfied until the collective bargaining process is completely undermined."
Cormack says the Klein government will package its attack on unions as an effort to "protect the rights of individual workers." This is the approach currently being taken in Ontario, where the Harris government is circulating a policy document calling for the gutting of that province's labour law.
Under the Harris government proposal, unions would have to get "authorization in writing" from each employee before they could collect dues. Approval from individual members would also have to be obtained before unions could use union dues for "political or social causes," such as contributions to political parties or pro-Medicare lobby campaigns.
"This kind of labour law is a dream come true for anti-union employers and conservative politicians," says Cormack. "Laws like these are deliberately designed to weaken unions by starving them of funds. They are also designed to neutralize unions as effective political critics and advocates for their members."
Cormack says she has received information from sources within government suggesting that changes to the Labour Code and the Public Service Employee Relations Act ( PSERA) could be introduced as early as this fall - but more likely after the next election, which is expected to be held in the spring of 2001. Cormack's sources also said the changes are being made, in part, to "get even" with the labour movement.
"This is payback time for Premier Klein," says Cormack. "He wants to get even for the role that unions played in opposing Bill 11 and he wants to punish health care unions for having the audacity to go on strike in support of their very legitimate wage and staffing concerns."
The possibility of even harsher labour laws in Alberta comes as no real surprise, says Cormack.
After all, she points out that this is the same government that recently allowed Labatts and Molson to crush its distribution workers' union by contracting their work to an outside firm; it's the same government that rarely fines companies for health and safety breaches, even when those breaches lead to worker fatalities; it's the same government that regularly turns a blind eye when anti-union employers like Conrad Black use tactics that wouldn't be allowed in other provinces; and it's the same government that for years has supported a union certification process that is rigged in favour of employers.
Cormack predicts that some Albertans will shrug off an attack on organized labour by arguing that unions are not necessary or that they have "out-lived their usefulness." But nothing could be further from the truth, she says.
"Given all the challenges that confront working people at the beginning of the 21th century, it's clear that unions have not lost their relevance or importance," says Cormack. "Far from it. Just look at what's been happening in the world economy and the local economy over the past 20 years. Declining real wages. On-going job insecurity. Deep cuts to public services. Erosion of employment standards and health and safety protections. Corporations moving jobs to low-wage countries in the Third world. The polarization between people who work too many hours and those who don't have enough work. In this kind of environment, working people clearly still need the kind of protection that unions provide - maybe now more than ever."
The past year has provided numerous examples of the good unions can do for workers, says Cormack. It has also provided examples showing how the province's existing labour laws stack the deck against workers.
"This year Alberta hospital workers won a long-overdue wage increase and workers at the pulp mill in Edson got an agreement that gave them improved job security. In both cases, the workers involved would not have won fair agreements without the help and leadership of their unions," says Cormack.
"On the other end of the spectrum, the past year also saw strikes that ended badly largely because of the inherent unfairness of Alberta's labour law. Conrad Black took advantage of Alberta's Labour Code to basically starve strikers at the Calgary into submission. And Labatts and Molson used the law to simply close down its unionized warehouse and move operations to a non-union contractor. These kinds of tactics would be illegal in most other provinces."
Cormack says one of the most frustrating aspects of the government's expected labour law "reform" is that it will almost certainly do nothing to address the real labour-relations problems that currently in Alberta - like the section of the existing labour code that allows hostile employers to simply refuse to bargain with newly certified and duly elected bargaining units.
"In a lot of ways, this is about arrogance," says Cormack. "The Tories are so used to being in charge and always being listened to that they can't stand anyone or any group standing up to them. We stood up to them during the Bill 11 fight. Now they want all of us in the labour movement to pay. But I guarantee that unions won't take this sitting down. We will fight to protect the collective bargaining process and we will fight to protect the interests of working people."
If the government proceeds with efforts to weaken Alberta's labour law, Cormack says they will meet with stiff resistance from the labour movement. At the same time, she says the labour movement will continue to aggressively promote and defend the interests of working people.
"If the government thinks that attacks on the labour laws will distract unions or turn us into lap dogs, then they have got another thing coming," says Cormack. "We will continue to support our members when they're at the bargaining table or on the picket line. We will continue to stand up to employers who ignore the important contributions of their workers. And we will continue to act as vocal critics of government policies that threaten working people and the communities they live in."
For more information call:
Audrey M. Cormack, President @ 483-3021 (wk) 499-6530 (cell) 428-9367 (hm)