Gov't moves to pass labour amendments

EDMONTON - The Alberta government moved swiftly today towards passing controversial labour code amendments, despite ongoing criticism from labour groups.

Just before debate started on Bill 26, the government made a motion to limit time spent on the matter. Opposition parties accused the government of stifling its opponents.

An NDP press release said the government was jamming the bill through the legislature "in time to hit the golf courses and barbecue circuit."

Liberal Hugh MacDonald said the sooner the government passes the bill, the less chance they will face opposition. "It's restricting and limiting public debate on a public bill," MacDonald said. "They want to steamroll this through and they do not want people get organized to oppose this legislation."

Conservative MLAs argued that opposition members will still have plenty of time to make their case during the seven hours the bill is in committee.

"What argument cannot be made by the opposition members within their allocated 30 or 40 minutes?" Tory Neil Brown asked.

A spokesman for the premier's office said they are hoping to have the bill passed by the end of the week, but are prepared to go into next week if the opposition prolongs the debate.

Union leaders continued to bash the bill, which was introduced Monday. It bans ambulance workers from striking and puts limits on so-called "salting" and "MERFing" practices.

Salting is when a union employee or sympathizer gets a job at a non-union workplace in order to organize workers or disrupt the company's operations. Unions argue the practice is rare, but contractors' associations say it is fairly common.

Market Enhancement Recovery Funds, or MERFs, are used by unions to help union contractors win bids. They are used, for example, to help employers provide benefits or higher salaries to their workers. The government has argued these funds distort the marketplace and harm non-union shops.

Stephen Kushner of the Merit Contractor's association says it's about protecting workers from unwanted salting practices and protecting non-union shops from unfair bidding.

"It's long overdue," he said. This morning, union leaders met for about 30 minutes with Employment Minister Hector Goudreau. They emerged unhappy. "The minister called us together not to hear our concerns or consider our suggestions, but rather to tell us the way things were going to be," said Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan.

McGowan said the bill isn't about making the market more fair or about worker choice. "What it's really about is tilting the playing field even further in favour of the merit contractors and other friends of the government."

Elisabeth Ballermann, the president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, said the government did little or no consultation with unions. She said the bill does nothing but hurt working people.

"There's nothing there but stripping away workers' rights, whether it's construction workers, ambulance workers, et cetera, et cetera," Ballermann said.

The NDP and others accused the government of hitting back at unions who bankrolled an advertising campaign last election attacking the government.

Goudreau said it was a hot issue on the hustings during the last election, particularly after the ads began to air.

"The ad campaign triggered a pile of discussions as we knocked on doors. They were saying why would they do that? So part of that enhanced that type of discussion. Now that's not the only reason. We've been talking about salting and MERFing for seven or eight years."

Speaking to reporters in Calgary, Stelmach said the bill came up now not because of revenge, but because the government finally had time to do it.

"I'm taking a bunch of issues off the backburner," Stelmach said. "There was only so much I could do in the first 14 months."

Debate continues today.

Edmonton Journal, Tues Jun 3 2008
Byline: Archie McLean

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