Co-operate or face court fight, trade unions tell province; Supreme Court ruling means laws now violate charter, labour federation says

EDMONTON - Unions are warning Alberta's employment minister that they will take the government to court if it doesn't change labour relations rules that contravene a recent Supreme Court ruling.

The Alberta Federation of Labour, the province's largest labour organization, sent a letter Friday to Iris Evans asking for a meeting to discuss legislative changes. If changes are not made, unions will look for specific cases they could use to challenge Alberta labour laws in court, says the letter sent just before Labour Day.

"And we both know a number of sections will not survive a court challenge. But there is another option," Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan wrote to the minister.

"We can work together to repair the damaged parts of the (Alberta Labour Relations) Code and other labour legislation, and save Albertans the money, time and hassle of having to use the lengthy court process."

The AFL met last week with 50 senior labour leaders who represent most of the province's unionized work force to discuss the June Supreme Court decision that affects unions' right to collective bargaining.

The court ruled that collective bargaining rights are protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of association.

The landmark ruling came out of a British Columbia case, but has repercussions for laws across the country.

The AFL argues there are numerous pieces of labour legislation in this province that interfere with unions' now constitutionally protected right to bargain collectively.

For instance, said McGowan, a group of carpenters that voted last month in favour of a strike still can't walk off the job because current laws group that union with another union representing labourers. The votes of both unions must be counted before either one can serve strike notice.

"The section of the labour code dealing with construction workers was designed to make it almost impossible for those workers to go on strike," McGowan said.

"Those kinds of unreasonable and unfair rules and hurdles are no longer constitutional as a result of the recent court decision."

Other Alberta legislation prevents provincial employees from bargaining their own pensions, and rules stop agriculture workers from joining unions, McGowan said.

"So basically, what the court said in this decision was that labour law in all Canadian provinces should be used to facilitate collective bargaining, not to undermine it."

Senior labour lawyer Bob Blair said he can't predict if the Alberta government will change laws before unions challenge them in court.

"Certainly, the history hasn't been one of changing legislation to head off constitutional challenges. In fact, the legislation hasn't changed since 1988 in any substantial way."

Blair, who was chairman of the Alberta Labour Relations Board from 1994 to 1999, said the government has never amended laws that prevent agriculture workers from unionizing.

"Similar laws have been struck down in other provinces," said Blair, whose law firm represents trade unions and has acted for the AFL.

"The Supreme Court of Canada has clearly said that it is not permissible, and it said it several years ago and the legislation hasn't been changed."

A spokeswoman for Alberta Employment, Immigration and Industry said the department is working with Alberta Justice to review the Supreme Court decision and determine its implications for Alberta legislation.

"Minister Evans has already directed her officials to prepare a plan to consult with Albertans regarding consolidation of labour legislation in the province," Lorelei Fiset-Cassidy said.

"However, there is still a significant amount of work to be done, and that will take some time."

Edmonton Journal, Page A13, Mon Sept 3 2007
Byline: Andrea Sands

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