Unions launch NAFTA challenge of proposed labour law

EDMONTON - The Alberta Federation of Labour and seven unions representing health care workers in the province have decided to launch a formal challenge to Bill 27, a bill to amend the Alberta Labour Code, on the grounds that it violates the NAFTA side agreement on labour.

"One of the key features of Bill 27 is that it robs health care workers and their unions of the right to due process when it comes to basic labour relations," says AFL president Les Steel.

"This is a clear violation of the obligations outlined under the North American Agreement on Labour Cooperation (NAALC) - better known as the NAFTA side agreement on labour. The agreement was entered into in 1995 by then Labour Minister Stockwell Day on behalf of the Alberta government, and it's still in force today."

The union complaint - which will be filed later this month - argues that Bill 27 violates Part Two, Section Five of the NAALC which says that each party (Canada, the U.S. and Mexico) shall ensure that all labour relations proceedings "comply with due process of the law."

As it stands right now, the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB) administers the rules governing collective bargaining in Alberta. They decide who unions can bargain for, when they can bargain, how they can bargain - and even sometimes what they can bargain.
But the ALRB is bound by law to exercise its authority in an even-handed manner. In particular, before making any decisions, the Board conducts formal hearings at which all parties have the right to state their case publicly. The Board then makes its decisions based on the law and the evidence.

It is exactly this impartial and balanced approach - a process that respects both sides in labour relations - that is being thrown out by Bill 27, says Steel.

"Basically, with Bill 27 the government is breaking its promises under NAFTA and completely short-circuiting the LRB process. Instead of decisions being made with input from all parties, the power is going to be transferred to the provincial cabinet. There will be no fair hearing for health care workers - and no due process. It will be a kangaroo court."

The unions' brief to the NAFTA Administrative Office is being prepared by Bob Blair, a prominent Edmonton labour lawyer, and former chair of the ALRB.

He says Bill 27 will give the cabinet power to determine appropriate bargaining units in health care; to determine which unions emerge as bargaining agents after regional health authorities have been amalgamated; and to determine which collective agreements are going to govern in those new bargaining units.

"This is a serious departure from past practice - and a clear violation of our commitment to due process under NAFTA," says Blair. "The LRB has traditionally maintained its impartiality by engaging in a very careful balancing act between the interests of the employer and the workers. But with Bill 27, the government is throwing out all pretense of impartiality."

Steel agrees, saying that the changes are clearly being made to advance the agendas of the employers - the regional health authorities."In this kind of setting, there is absolutely no way that workers will get a fair hearing."

The complaint is being filed jointly by:  the Alberta Federation of Labour, the United Nurses of Alberta, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, the Communications, Energy & Paperworkers Union of Canada, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the United Steelworkers of America, and the International Union of Operating Engineers.

For more information call:

Les Steel, AFL President (780) 499-4135 (cell) / (780) 483-3021 (wk)

Bob Blair, Lawyer, Blair Chahley & Seveny (780) 423-3433 (wk) / (780) 919-3357 (cell)

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