2005 December Speaking Notes AFL All-union Meeting to discuss FOIP Revelations about the Labour Relations Board
Gil McGowan, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, December 2, 2005
Two-and-a-half years ago, the Alberta government made some sweeping changes to the labour laws covering health care workers in this province.
The government tried to argue that Bill 27 was nothing more than administrative house-keeping. They said it was about simplification, streamlining and efficiency.
But from our perspective, it was something much more serious. It was a law essentially drafted to force concessions from health care unions that the regional health authorities had been unable to win at the bargaining table.
Bill 27 allowed the government to tear up dozens of freely negotiated contracts covering the pay and working conditions of tens of thousands of health care workers.
It forced unions into run-off votes, denying many workers the right to choose the union they actually preferred.
And it removed the legal right to strike from thousands of union members in areas like Community Health, Mental Health and Extended Care - without even attempting to justify how it would threaten the public interest if a speech pathologist, physiotherapist or community health nurse walked a picket line.
We've had our share of anti-union labour laws thrown at us in the province - but Bill 27 has to rank among the worst.
Our concerns about the substance of the law were profound - but we also had serious concerns about the process.
In particular, we were concerned about the role employers may have played in introducing, designing and drafting the legislation.
In an attempt to substantiate these concerns we filed a series of Freedom of Information requests with the Department of Health and Wellness, the Department of Human Resources and Employment and the Labour Relations Board.
The responses we received to these requests only heightened our concerns. The Health department and the Human Resources Department disclosed boxes of documents - most of which turned out to be innocuous. But from the LRB, we got nothing.
The Board refused to release any documents, saying they were all covered by exemptions within the FOIP act.
This blanket refusal, coupled with a few hints from documents from Health and Human Resources, raised a number of red flags for us. In particular, we started to suspect that we had stumbled onto something even bigger than what we had initially thought. We had been worried about the government cozying up with employers. But now we started to have grave concerns about the role that the Labour Relations Board in the whole process.
As we all know, the LRB is the quasi-judicial board that over-sees the administration and application of labour laws covering unionize workplaces in Alberta.
It is the referee, the traffic cop, the court of appeal in matters of labour relations.
It is also - and this is crucial - supposed to be independent and impartial. And by independent, we mean arms-length from government and free from influence by either the unions or the employers that appear before it.
However, at least when it came to Bill 27, the more we learned, the more it appeared that the Board's independence had been compromised. In particular, we were getting hints that the LRB was taking a direct role in drafting Bill 27.
We had no smoking gun. But, if it was true that the Board was working with government on Bill 27 this was very serious & because the LRB would have crossed an important line & they would have gone from interpreting the law, to writing it.
The LRB and Clint Dunford, who was Minister of Human Resources at the time, essentially said we were paranoid & that we were chasing shadows.
While Dunford admitted that there might have been some consultation on technical matters, the he said emphatically that the Bill was written by the politicians, not the LRB. In fact, in one newspaper article that we've included in your information package, he is quoted as saying the board had no role in drafting Bill 27.
But we weren't satisfied with those reassurances.
We had a hard time believing that the LRB had no documents related to Bill 27 or that all of them were covered by FOIP exemptions. So we did what was our right to do & we appealed the whole case to the information commissioner's office. And then, we waited.
And that's where things stood until late last week. On the evening of Wednesday, November 23, our lawyer received a letter and a few documents from the information commissioner's office - you'll find them in the package we've prepared for you.
There are only a few short documents here. But they prove what we have suspected all along & namely, that the independence of the LRB was compromised during the Bill 27 process.
What these documents show is not only that the LRB was playing an active role in drafting labour laws that they where only supposed to be policing and interpreting & the LRB was also actively working with employers to determine what the law should look like.
In the e-mail, dated March 11, 2003 and labelled number 50 by the information commissioner, Bruce Baugh (who is a government lawyer whose job it is to write legislation) says he has followed instructions from LRB Vice-chair Les Wallace.
And in the e-mail dated March 4, 2003 and labelled number 95 - Les Wallace himself provides an outline of what he says Bill 27 should look like. And he goes further. He says he has consulted with Damien Bailey, a senior lawyer from the firm McLellan and Ross - who act as counsel for a number of major health authorities. In particular, Wallace says he had discussions with Mr. Bailey about how the section of the regulation dealing with severance should be worded.
We've done some digging - and the section of Bill 27 they were talking about is the one that took away severance pay from a large group of Mental Health workers, who at the time were represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.
From our perspective, this is nothing short of a scandal.
What's happened here is that, the LRB abandoned its independence. It's supposed to be an independent, third party arbiter - but it allowed itself to essentially become another branch of government.
And even worse, it took advice and direction from employers who had a vested interest in watering down contracts for health care workers.
This is a clear violation of the central role of the Labour Relations Board. And it is a clear conflict of interest.
All of us in this room understand why all of this is upsetting for the labour movement. But for members of press let me use a sports analogy.
Here in Edmonton, we've just watched our football team win the Grey Cup. How would Eskimo fans feel if there were ten seconds on the clock, Edmonton is third and goal - and then the referee goes to the Montreal bench to consult on a crucial penalty call.
That's what's happened to union and working people in this case. The referee is helping the other side to win.
The government passed one of the most sweeping - and we would argue damaging and unfair - pieces of labour legislation in Alberta history. And, instead of remaining impartial, the LRB has consulted with the other team.
In effect, the Labour Relations Board has put itself in the position of writing the law to reflect the interests of employers and government, and then they've gone on to sit in judgement of that same law.
Unions in this province appear before the Board every day.
But, given these revelations, how can we have any confidence that we will be treated fairly? How can we have any confidence that the Board will be fair and impartial? How can we have any confidence that the referee is not working for the other team?
These are deeply troubling questions. And honestly, until such a time that confidence can be restored in the true independence of the board, there will be a crisis in labour relations in this province.
With that in mind - and in an effort to restore the confidence in the LRB that is necessary to make the system work - the AFL has called for a public inquiry.
We don't want an internal investigation or a review that's conducted behind closed doors.
We want an independent body to look at these documents and the many others that are clearly out there, but haven't been released. We want someone who can call witnesses and subpoena evidence. In short, we want a thorough, public investigation. And we want changes to make sure something like this never happens again.
This is a stain on our labour relations system in Alberta. The good news is that the problem is now out in the open. Now all that's need is the political will to deal with it and restore confidence in the system.
Gil McGowan, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, October 28, 2005
Hello and welcome.
As many of you know, my name is Gil McGowan, and I'm president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
I'd like to begin this afternoon by thanking all of you for taking the time to attend this reception.
I know we have a jammed packed agenda and every spare minute is precious; so we appreciate you making the effort to squeeze us in.
I'd particularly like to welcome all the delegates from the government and business communities.
Some people joke that we come here first for the food and the scenery and only second for the discussion.
But for me, there simply aren't enough opportunities for dialog between our two solitudes.
I sincerely believe that by meeting like this and getting to know each other face-to-face we can more effectively make strides towards that elusive goal of workplace harmony.
Of course, harmony is not the word that many would use to describe what's going on in Alberta today.
And that's why I've arranged to have this talk this afternoon.
In many ways, what we're seeing around the province right now is a story of stark contrasts.
On one hand, here in Alberta in 2005, we have it all.
Our economy is literally floating on a sea of oil dollars. Demand for what we produce is strong and getting stronger. Profits are up, unemployment is down and our provincial treasury is bursting at the seams. It's hard to imagine how our economic prospects could be brighter.
During times like these, Albertans should be comfortable and confident. We should be looking to the future with hope. We should be dreaming big. We should building schools and hospitals. We should not only be maintaining the social programs we have, we should be enhancing them.
Many around us are indeed living the Alberta dream. But for many others, it's a different story.
Instead of comfort and confidence we get picket lines. And instead of enhancing the programs we have, we get 12-year-olds at work and Premier's Klein's Third Way for private health care.
That's the face of the other Alberta; and it's the face that many of our members are struggling to deal with today.
Military metaphors are often over-used by leaders & but it's hard for those of us in the labour community not to describe what's been happening over the last six months as a war.
It's a war with many fronts.
Telus. CBC. Lakeside. Finning. Casino Calgary.
Never before in Alberta history have so many workers, from so many different unions and so many different sectors of the economy been on the picket line at the same time.
It would be one thing if all these strikes were simply about wages; about workers trying to get a bigger piece of Alberta's expanding economic pie.
But they're not. Each one of these labour disputes are about much more fundamental issues.
In the case of both Telus and Finning, for example, it's about contracting out and job security.
In both cases we have companies that are hugely successful. Telus dominates the telecommunications market in western Canada. And Finning is the leading supplier of heavy equipment to Alberta's booming oil industry. These are companies that measure their profits, not in millions, not in tens of millions, but in hundreds of millions.
And yet, despite their market dominance and despite their profits, many of the people working at these companies feel insecure.
And they feel insecure with good reason: Telus has laid off thousands and they've been dipping their toe in pool of foreign outsourcing. And Finning has already contracted out or spun off whole divisions at the expense of hundreds of jobs.
So the fight at Finning and Telus and the CBC has not been about nickels and dimes: it has been about fighting for careers rather than contracts; and about stopping the disappearance of stable, family-sustaining jobs.
The strike at Lakeside Packers in Brooks and Casino Calgary are also about bedrock issues of fairness.
Just last weekend I spoke with a women on the Casino Calgary picket line who has worked as a dealer at the Casino for 25 years. When she started in 1980, she made $7.00 and hour. Today, 25 years later, she makes $7.80 and hour. 80 cents in 25 years.
To make matters worse, while I was standing there, the casino owner's son pulled up in his Hummer and sneered at the picketers.
It was one of those moments of clarity. Here, on one hand was a group of struggling minimum wage workers, and there, on the other hand, was some driving a vehicle that costs more than any of the workers could make in ten years.
It's a similar situation in Brooks.
You've already heard from the Lakeside workers themselves last night, so I won't belabour the point. But I'll say this.
This is a strike about the most basic issues. It's about right most Albertans 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; like the right to actually get paid for all the time you work.
To illustrate how bad things are there, I'll tell you two quick stories.
First, one of the strikers told me about an incident when one of the beef carcasses, weighing hundreds of pounds, fell off the assembly line on top of a worker. The managers rushed in quickly: but not to help the injured worker. They were there to pick up the meat.
The second, story I'll tell you is about a practice that sounds like it comes right out of some south Asian sweat shop. It's called gang time and it happens every day at Lakeside. Basically what happens is that Lakeside stops paying people when they stop slaughtering cattle.
The only problem is that it's an assembly line operation, so it takes some time for the last animal to make it's way from the killing floor to the end of the line. And for all that time, as much as an hour at the end of each shift, the workers along the line are not getting paid.
Lakeside's parent company Tyson Foods has been brought up on charges and convicted of this practice in the states. But it's also happening here.
This is why some of the workers talk about how working at Lakeside is like slavery. Many of them have come from desperate war-torn countries & they come to Canada full of hope and this is how they are greeted.
Now, I don't want to paint all of Alberta business with the same brush. The truth is that the vast majority of employers in the province are good employers and the vast majority of business people in the province are people of good conscience.
But, in the spirit of openness, I have to tell you, when we in the labour movement look at what's going on, we come away feeling deeply troubled.
We're fighting for job security during strong economic times when insecurity should be the last thing on our minds.
And we're fighting battles for basic fairness and respect that most people thought were won a generation ago.
As president of the AFL, I'm often asked: what's going on? And why is all of this happening now.
In nutshell, I think it's a problem of limits, or more precisely, the lack of limits.
Think of it this way. Ours is an individualistic society, where we are generally free to choose how we live our lives and that's a good thing.
But even in this free society we have limits, we have boundaries.
Some of them are legally codified: you can't steal, you can't speed, you can't break into your neighbour's house and help your self to his new plasma TV. But some of our boundaries are strictly social. For example, it may not be illegal to make a pass at your best friend's wife, but generally speaking, we know it's something we shouldn't do.
In the same vein, here in Alberta - when it comes to the way employers deal with their workers - I would make the argument that there is a problem with limits. Specifically, I think there is a problem with both the codified rules and the less formal cultural and social limits that put boundaries on what is acceptable and what isn't.
On the legal side, we have a weak labour code that makes it hard for unions to organize and bargain and which fails to give our labour board the powers that other provincial labour boards have to promote fair bargaining and discourage unfair practices.
We also have a weak employment standards system that sometimes sounds good on paper but is not backed up with an effective enforcement mechanism.
These weak laws open the door for some businesses to behave badly, and, as we seen, some of them do exactly that.
On the social side, we also have a business culture that too often says "anything goes."
We all know that some companies are behaving badly. But too often our leaders in other business and government circles turn the other way.
As someone once said to on the picket line in Brooks: It's like someone is getting beaten up in the alley and instead of helping, people close the blinds and turn up the stereo."
That's what happens when you don't have appropriate limits. In the broader society, when limits break down, we end up with people behaving badly; maybe not everybody, but some people.
In the same way, without appropriate limits in the business world, some businesses cross over the line of what's acceptable.
In nutshell, that's what I think explains the explosion of labour unrest in the province this year. It's a story of weak limits. And it's a story about corporations behaving badly.
The thing about weak limits is that they are really in no ones best interests. Our members don't want to be on the picket line. It's costly, it's disruptive and, especially when it comes to things like the situation in Brooks, it gives the entire Alberta business community a black eye.
So I have a modest proposal. I would like to see the labour movement and the responsible majority of the business community work together at promoting a package of more appropriate labour standards.
We're not asking for the moon.
On the legal side, what we need is first contract arbitration, so that employers can't simply ignore the democratically expressed will of their employees.
Dozens of strikes were avoided in other provinces last year because of first contract arbitration. If we had it here, there would be no strike at Brooks. The time for first contract arbitration in Alberta has come.
We also think that the Labour Board needs some of the powers that were stripped from it in 1988. In particular, we think they need the big stick of automatic certification. Charges of bad faith bargaining mean nothing if there is no effective deterrent.
When it comes to employment standards, we could go on all day. But at the very least, we need a more aggressive approach to enforcement. Giving employment standards officers the power to issue tickets, as opposed to always having to go through the courts would be an important first step.
On the social side, we'd like to see is leadership from government and the business community & we need to identify standards of what's acceptable and what's not.
We talk about promoting best practices - that's great - but I think we should also be talking about identifying and actively discouraging worst practices.
So, when some corporation behaves badly - when something dark slithers out from under a rock - we don't want them to be greeted by silence. Instead we want them to be greeted by the law, and the full blown and actively expressed disapproval of not only the labour movment and civil society, but also the Alberta corporate community.
Finally, on the subject of contracting out and job security, which is at the heart of so many of our disputes, we'd like to see some movement from the business community.
Providing employees with decent working conditions and some measure of job security should not be seen as a straight jacket that undermines profit, but as a cost of doing business.
To conclude, I'd just like to remind you of what we all know. We are living through a period of great prosperity. We can make the argument that Alberta today is one of the most prosperous jurisdictions, not just in Canada, but the entire world.
But, and here's the really important point: the only real way that most ordinary Albertans share in the Alberta Advantage is through their jobs and the wages they earn. If those wages are stagnant or declining, if those jobs are insecure, then those people are not sharing in the Alberta Advantage.
And the implications are serious; if our companies in Alberta can't provide some measure of security; if careers are really being replaced by contracts, if job security has become a quaint notion from the past, then where does that leave us?
Without being too melodramatic, I think that what's at stake is nothing less that the future of our middle class.
If even here in Alberta the Wealthy people don't have security, can't take mortgages, can't save for kids education, then we really have a problem.
It's not enough to think, some one else will provide the good jobs; if we all think that the next guy is doing it, one day we'll wake up and wonder where the middle class went.
The fact that so many people are not being treated better, the fact that we're allowing some corporations to behave badly even during a time of unprecedented prosperity, is a black mark on Alberta.
I think we can do better. Given prosperity, I know we can do better. Maybe, by working together, we can get the ball rolling.
Kerry Barrett, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, March 2005
We're here today because you're company - that company right there - is turning its back on you.
Some of you have already been laid off. Others have an axe hanging over your heads.
But, in either case, something important is being lost here.
What's being lost are not just thrown-way jobs. We're not talking about McJobs.
These are family-sustaining jobs.
These are jobs that put money into your pockets, but also put money into the broader Edmonton economy.
These are the kind of jobs that form the backbone communities like Edmonton.
And why are your jobs being cut?
Why are you - in some cases, after being with the company for more than 20 or 25 years - why are you now being discarded like post-it notes?
Is it because customers no longer want your services?
Is it because the economy has gone south?
Is it because your company is losing money?
As we all know, none of those things are the case.
Just this morning, I opened the paper, and in the business section there was an article saying that Finning racked up a profit of $20 million in the last quarter.
That's $20 million in just the last three months.
This is not a company that's struggling. This is not a company that can't afford to do well by its employees.
Instead, what we have here is a company that has made a conscious decision to turn its back on it own long-time workforce.
For the sake of squeezing out of few more cents of profit per share, they're leaving you out on the curb.
As you know, your work isn't being eliminated. And it's not being shipped overseas. It's staying right here in the Edmonton region.
Basically, they're closing you down and opening up across the street.
The big question is why. Is it really about efficiency, as the company says? Or is this really about breaking your union?
From our perspective, what's going on here is indefensible.
And you know what is just as big a crime?
The labour laws here in Alberta are so weak that Finning just might be able to get away with it.
That's why the AFL is here today.
We're here to help you shine a public spotlight on the bad corporate citizenship being shown by Finning.
And we're here to show that the Alberta government - by paving the way for this kind of thing - is actually an accomplice.
In conclusion, what I want all of you to know is that the AFL and the rest of the labour movement are behind you in this fight.
We all have a stake - because if Finning is able to get away with this kind of union-busting - then no working people in this province are safe.
That's why we're here for you today and that's why we'll continue being with you as you continue your fight.
Good luck and thank you.
The Alberta Federation of Labour responded to the Labour Relations Board decision today to suspend the collection of dues for AUPE health care workers for a two month period by calling the decision "disappointing" and a "slap in the face to workers". The Board ruled on an application to punish AUPE for a strike last year involving 10,000 health care workers.
"Today's decision is a slap in the face to Alberta workers," says AFL President Audrey Cormack. "It sets a dangerous precedent, one that workers must fight."
"This is an extremely disappointing ruling, one that highlights just how badly Alberta's labour law stacks the deck against working people," says Cormack. "Alberta is the only province in the country that allows employers to punish workers in this manner."
Cormack points out that the decision will affect any worker who does not have the right to strike, which is thousands more than any other province. "It is a statement from the government that an individual worker's right to free association will not be respected in this province."
The AFL intends to pursue a challenge to section 112 of the Labour Code as a violation of the Charter of Rights. Section 112 is the section which permits an employer to apply for a suspension of dues. The Board has already set dates for a hearing on these arguments on May 11.
"We intend to intervene in the hearing to argue that the section violates the constitutional right of an individual worker to free association," says Cormack. "We want the section struck down."
Cormack states the AFL's argument that such punitive action allowed under section 112 interferes with a worker's right to association by restricting the ability of the bargaining agent to represent the member. The collection of dues has been found by the Courts to be a protected part of freedom of association, as dues are the vehicle which allows a union to effectively represent their members. If a member is not effectively represented, their rights are breached.
Cormack also points out that the union has already been punished through a court-imposed fine. Any further action is an unjustified interference with workers' rights, Cormack believes.
Cormack says the decision will only further sour labour relations in Alberta. "Alberta's labour laws create poor labour relations by creating an unlevel playing field, this decision tips the balance even further."
"The message to workers today is that your rights won't be respected in this province." Cormack concluded.
For further information contact:
Audrey M. Cormack, President @ 483-3021 wk/499-6530 cell/428-9367 hm
EDMONTON - The decision to prohibit Alberta nurses from holding a vote on the latest contract offer from their employers proves that Alberta's labour laws are seriously flawed, says the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"There is something seriously wrong with a law that makes criminals out of people who are simply trying to defend their rights in the workplace," says Audrey Cormack, president of Alberta's largest union organization.
"Nurses and other health care workers in this province have been pushed to the brink by budget cuts and under-staffing. Now they face the prospect of being branded as criminals for having the audacity to fight for a better health care system. What's really criminal here is the way the nurses are being treated by the regional health authorities and the provincial government."
Cormack says Alberta's labour laws impose more restrictions on the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively than any other province.
"In a democracy, workers should not be forced to work against their will by threats of violence, fines or imprisonment," she says. "But that's exactly what's happening in this case and in the case of all other public sector workers who are denied the right to strike. They are being denied a fundamental democratic freedom."
Cormack says the health authorities and the provincial government are using Alberta's labour law to avoid addressing the serious issues that nurses have brought to the table - like concerns over under-staffing, declining morale and inadequate compensation.
"The experience of the 1988 nurses strike proves that you can't find solutions by imposing injunctions and levying fines," says Cormack. "This kind of unnecessarily aggressive approach to bargaining won't stop a strike and it certainly won't do anything to address the crisis in our health care system."
In the short term, Cormack says the solution to the problem lies with the provincial government. She says more money has to be given to the regional health authorities so they can hire more nurses and increase their compensation. In the long term, Cormack says something has to be done with Alberta's labour laws.
"The labour laws in this province are backward and punitive. Far too many workers are being denied the right to strike - which is a fundamental democratic right recognized by the United Nations. Our leaders are going to have to acknowledge that criminalizing strike activity does nothing to solve problems in the workplace."
For more information call:
Audrey Cormack, AFL President @ (780) 499-6530 (cell)
The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) accused the Minister of Labour today of misleading the public in his announcement of the Labour Relations Board (LRB) appointments.
In his announcement yesterday of 17 appointments to the LRB, the Minister suggested that a selection committee brought names forward for nomination. However, one of the appointments did not come from the committee and was added later by the Minister himself.
From outside the committee list, the Minister appointed a very controversial figure, Mr. Stephen Kushner. Kushner is a central figure in the "Merit Shop" group of construction companies, who were set up in the 1980s specifically to avoid unionized workers of the construction industry.
"Stephen Kushner is wholly unfit to serve on the Labour Relations Board. He is utterly unacceptable to the labour movement," says Audrey Cormack, President of the AFL and member of the selection committee. "His bias is well-known and so deeply entrenched that it raises serious questions about his ability to serve in good faith on a bi-partite Board."
"Had Stephen Kushner's name come forward as a recommendation, I would have removed myself from the committee in protest," adds Cormack. "The Minister has misled Albertans about who put his name forward."
The LRB hears matters related to unionized workplaces and the collective bargaining process. "Someone with such an anti-union reputation should not be in a position of making decisions about unionized workplaces," says Cormack.
In his release, the Minister crowed that "for the first time in our history, appointments to the LRB have been made after a public competitive process". The release states that a selection committee made up of labour, business and government representatives "reviewed applications, conducted interviews and made recommendations to the Minister of Labour". Mr. Kushner was not recommended from this process.
Until this year, employers and labour provided names to the government to serve as their representatives on the Board. The new selection committee ended this tradition.
"I consider the Minister's actions a betrayal of the process and a blatant attempt to antagonize workers in Alberta," Cormack expresses. "He is attempting to legitimize Kushner's appointment by falsely hiding behind a supposedly open, transparent selection process."
"Kushner was never considered seriously or for any length of time by the committee," adds Cormack. "His obvious and historical bias made him an unacceptable candidate."
Cormack demands that the Minister rescind Stephen Kushner's appointment and select another employer representative from the list of committee recommendations.
For further information, contact:
Audrey M. Cormack, AFL President 499-6530 (cell) / 483-3021 (wk) / 428-9367 (hm)
Gil McGowan, AFL Communications Director 483-3021 (wk)