AFL calls for independent review of shady lobbying activity by construction industry executives
Edmonton – Secret documents suggest Alberta's construction industry is exerting undue influence on government decisions.
In the correspondence (see link below), obtained by the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) under Freedom of Information legislation, a representative of a coalition of construction companies and anti-union contractors lobbied Premier Alison Redford by linking large political donations to political promises to revise Alberta’s labour code.
“Albertans deserve to know that their government is making decisions independent of undue influence, and that our elected officials are using their power to promote the public interest, not to advance the private interests of friends and political supporters,” AFL president Gil McGowan said.
At issue in the documents is pressure from construction industry lobbyists to re-open the debate on Alberta's labour code, and to make changes in favour of employers.
“Albertans should be concerned about the methods used by the lobbyists, and the apparent willingness of top officials to give preferential treatment to groups that make significant political donations,” McGowan said.
The correspondence involves dozens of e-mails and letters between ministers, premiers, their offices, and lobbyists for the Construction Competitiveness Coalition (CCC), a coalition of large non-union construction companies. All but one of the lobbyists are unregistered.
“If this is happening with one area of legislation, we have to wonder who’s giving the marching orders when the province looks at legislation in other areas like consumer protection, environmental regulation, energy policy and safety standards,” McGowan said.
In light of the contents of the documents, the AFL is calling for the labour code review to be shelved immediately.
“These e-mails suggest that some people in power aren't maintaining the wall that needs to exist between government and groups that seek to influence government,” McGowan said. “As a result, democracy in Alberta is not as strong as it needs to be.”
One of the changes sought by senior executives of construction companies would make it difficult for unions to engage in political action, including legitimate, arms-length lobbying.
“Do we have a government that represents citizens, or is this a government of big business, by big business and for big business?” McGowan asks. “Albertans deserve answers, and the only way they’ll get those answers is through an independent investigation. And it needs to be an investigation conducted by the courts, not just the Ethics Commissioner or the Lobbyist Registrar because they're both agents of the Legislature.”
Gil McGowan, President, Alberta Federation of Labour at 780-218-9888 (cell)
Olav Rokne, AFL Communications Director at 780-289-6528 (cell) or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Merit Contractors Association, which represents more than 1,300 "open shop" or non-unionized construction industry employers prov-incewide, wants the Redford government to make good on one of the promises it made during the election campaign. As part of their 2012 election platform, the PCs proposed introducing legislation making it mandatory for trade unions to disclose their annual financial statements to their members. They also proposed to give union members the right to opt out of any portion of union dues that fund activities unrelated to collective bargaining.
Peter Pilarski, Merit Con-tractors Association's vice-president for southern Alberta, said he believes changes to legislation are important because employees are fed up with having their union dues used to make political contributions or support certain social causes. During the 2008 provincial election campaign, for example, a series of anti-Conservative attack ads were paid for by "Albertans for Change," a coalition of the Alberta Building and Trades Council of Unions, the Alberta Federation of Labour and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. In Ontario's 2011 election campaign, a coalition of unions dubbed "Working Families" spent $2.1 million on ads attacking PC leader Tim Hudak.
"If belonging to a union and paying union dues are a condition of employment for me, I should have some rights as to where that money's going. The feeling I think Canadians have is they don't have those rights right now," Pilarski said.
A survey commissioned by Merit Contractors and released by the organization today seems to indicate support for Pilarski's premise. According to the survey, conducted by Leger Marketing, only 35 per cent of the 501 employed Albertans interviewed believe union dues are well-spent, while 41 per cent do not. Seventy-two per cent of respondents believe union members should have the right to opt out of certain union activities, while 63 per cent think unionization itself shouldn't be mandatory in any workplace and employees should have the option of opting out entirely.
The survey results are based on 501 online interviews with employed Albertans.
Martyn Piper, executive secretary treasurer of the Alberta Regional Council of Carpenters and Allied Workers, said his union already makes its financial information fully available to its members and he has no problem with the idea of a provincial law requiring that type of disclosure from all unions.
What he is opposed to, however, is the premise of Bill C-377, a private member's bill currently before the federal House of Commons which would require unions to make all of their financial information publicly available online. He said that level of disclosure would jeopardize the privacy of everyone from pension fund recipients to vendors and contractors.
"It's our members who should know how the finances are spent," Piper said. "Do we want the rest of the world to know what we do with our finances? I don't think any organization wants that, either personally or professionally."
Piper disagreed with the idea that people should be able to opt out of certain portions of their union dues, arguing unions make their decisions democratically and members - just like in any other organization - must abide by the will of the majority. He said those who don't want to be unionized at all are free to choose an alternative workplace.
Piper added he believes advocates of such legislation are unfairly putting unions in a bad light.
"The problem is people don't understand us and they don't make any attempt to understand us," he said. "There are always people who want to attack unions, but at the end of the day, to what end?"
In spite of what was proposed in his party's campaign platform, deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk said the government has not yet made a decision on whether or not to amend Alberta's labour laws. He said he will soon be inviting both sides - employers' groups and union officials - to sit down and discuss how to keep Alberta competitive while growing the labour force at the same time.
'Both sides have ideas on how to accomplish that, but those ideas are not always parallel," Lukaszuk said. "There is a balance there, and that means that either one of those two visions cannot be adopted holus-bolus."
Conducted by Leger Marketing, based on 501 online interviews with employed Albertans
- (results weighted by age and gender to ensure demographic representation)
- Percentage of respondents who agreed with the following statements:
- Union dues are well-spent - 35%
- Union dues are not well-spent - 41%
- Employees should have the ability to opt out of non-core union activities - 72%
- Unionization should not be a mandatory condition for employment and that employees should be able to opt out of all union dues - 63%
- Workers should be able to obtain financial information about their union - 94%
- It should be mandatory for all unions to publicly disclose their finances - 86%
- Unions have a positive role in ensuring job security - 81%
- Unions are relevant today - 40%
- Unions were once relevant, but aren't anymore - 45%
The Calgary Herald, August 31, 2012
Byline: Amanda Stephenson
Re: "Premiers must stand up to Ottawa's cheap-labour strategy; Harper Tories have launched stealth attack on middle class," by Gil McGowan and Lana Payne, Opinion, Aug. 3.
This opinion piece criticizing federal reforms misses the mark on several issues.
Pension reform is about fairness and sustaining future pensions for all Canadians. Decisions taken this year will ensure we have a viable Canada Pension Plan into the future. Consider what's happening in Europe.
Employment insurance should be run as an insurance program, not a social welfare program. Its aim is to provide a financial bridge to help able-bodied unemployed Canadians find jobs where their skills are needed.
If the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is all about exploitation, how can you say construction workers making $30 to $40 an hour are being exploited? The assertion that employers will automatically pay temporary foreign workers 15 per cent less than their Canadian workers is also wrong. While federal guidelines permit flexible wage scales, they stipulate that all rates must be comparable to what workers in the company are paid.
It is also wrong to say Bill C-377 will restrict unions from spending. Rather, the proposed legislation calls for unions to account for and disclose how mandatory union dues are spent, in the same way charities and native bands do. Recent surveys suggest unionized workers in Canada support this type of legislation.
While union leaders across Canada are banding together to oppose reforms that are relevant in the 21st century, there are others who believe the Harper government should be applauded.
Edmonton Journal, Tues Aug 7 2012
Letter by: Stephen Kushner, president, Merit Contractors Association, Edmonton
A survey released by Canadian LabourWatch Association found unions are irrelevant and their leaders out of touch, but one union leader believes this view of the results is biased and distorted.
LabourWatch hired Nanos Research to conduct a telephone survey of 1,000 employed Canadians between July 27th and Aug. 6th.
One of the most important findings of the Nanos survey is that 77 per cent of non-unionized working Canadians are not interested in being unionized.
The survey also found that more than 25 per cent of currently unionized respondents said they would prefer not to be unionized, if given the choice.
"These results speak for themselves" said John Mortimer, president of LabourWatch.
"Union leader positions on a range of issues are contributing to this continuing slide in both interest and actual union representation."
A spokesperson for union workers in Alberta has a very different interpretation of the survey commissioned by LabourWatch.
"It (LabourWatch) is a who's who of anti-labour organizations that exists to undermine unions and get them off work sites," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"When you look at this poll, you must consider the source. This is a laughable group that must not be taken seriously."
McGowan said Nanos is a reputable research firm, but it is clear that the questions have been written in such a way as to encourage negative responses to unions.
"Even with this bias approach the survey shows that 75 per cent of the people polled are happy with and support their union," said McGowan. "This is a higher approval rating than any provincial government in Canada and higher than the Harper government. As a labour leader these figures suggest we are on the right track."
In response to the survey's finding that people are not interested in union membership, McGowan argued that the restrictive labour laws in Alberta were the main reason more people are not being able to join a union.
"LabourWatch is not the only organization looking at or asking these types of questions," explained McGowan. "Our own internal survey shows that 30-40 per cent of the people who are not currently unionized would join a union if they could."
Another finding of the survey was that 84 per cent of working Albertans disagreed with union leaders using union dues to pay for advertising campaigns opposing political parties. Almost 70 per cent of working Albertans also disagreed with unions contributing to groups advocating causes unrelated to the workplace.
"The results clearly indicate that workers are rejecting the heavy handed tactics and negative rhetoric of union leaders who claim to speak for all working Albertans, said Stephen Kushner, president of Merit Contractors Association. "The recent provincial election in Alberta which saw the Alberta Building Trades Council (ABTC) and the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) spend millions of dollars on attack ads is a case in point."
In the run up to the Alberta election on March 3, the ABTC and the AFL sponsored a campaign called 'Albertans for Change'. The main aim of this campaign, which began before the election was announced, was to question the leadership abilities of Conservative party leader Ed Stelmach.
Union leaders did not disclose the cost of these so-called attack ads. However, critics of the campaign estimate the cost at $1 million for prime-time TV spots and full-page newspaper ads.
McGowan said the decision to spend union funds on the election campaign was made after going through a very democratic process. The union leadership consulted the grass roots and was fully accountable to members.
Despite this fact, McGowan is concerned about the direction the Conservatives are taking public policy on union dues and political campaigns.
"They (Conservatives) will probably get their wish on this one," said McGowan. "The will issue legislation this fall to reduce the unions ability to spend money during an election."
Journal of Commerce, Mon Sept 15 2008
Byline: Richard Gilbert
Journal of Commerce, Aug 20 2008
Byline: Richard Gilbert
Unions and contractors in Alberta disagree about the merits of a new federal government immigration program.
Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Diane Finley outlined recently the details of a proposal, which targets temporary foreign workers (TFWs) and foreign graduate students.
It will allow applicants with managerial, professional, technical or trade work experience to become permanent residents and eventually Canadian citizens.
"Choosing newcomers based on knowledge of our labour market and experience within Canadian society would make Canada a more attractive destination for skilled individuals from around the world," said Finley.
"International students and skilled workers would be more likely to choose Canada if they knew their time in Canada and contribution to Canadian society would assist in their eligibility to apply to stay permanently."
The program is open to TFWs with at least two years of work experience and graduates of post-secondary programs lasting at least two academic years, provided they have at least one year of work experience.
The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) is extremely critical of the federal government's proposed new measures to fast-track citizenship for only certain classes of TFWs.
"By restricting this benefit to only professional, technical and skilled occupations, the government is setting up a permanent underclass of unskilled temporary foreign workers who will be deprived of the rights to citizenship being extended only to elite workers," said Gil McGowan, Alberta Federation of Labour president.
"The great majority of temporary foreign workers in Alberta do not fall into the privileged O, A and B designated occupations."
Only 14,842 temporary workers or 39.8 per cent of all TFWs in Alberta would have been included in this program in 2007, according to McGowan.
This means 22,415 other, lesser skilled temporary foreign workers would have been excluded.
He said the federal government has left out unskilled service sector workers and labourers (level D), which is the fastest growing occupational category for TFWs in Alberta. In 2007, this category accounted for 6,338 workers.
McGowan argued that the government is creating a class of exploited workers, who can be endlessly cycled back to their home countries when their work in Canada is done.
Merit Contractors Association strongly disagrees with the AFL's position and supports the federal government's proposal.
"What McGowan doesn't understand is the federal government is constipated," said Bill Stewart, vice president of Merit.
"There are about 900,000 people waiting for admission to Canada for landed immigrant status. This is a six-year backlog. The system needs a laxative."
Currently, there is no immigration pathway that values experience in Canada as a key indicator of a newcomer's likelihood to succeed.
The federal skilled worker program is the most important avenue available for people who want to become permanent residents.
It was designed for overseas immigration and does not focus on Canadian experience.
Skilled tradespersons and TFWs may not qualify to immigrate under this program because they often lack sufficient formal education to qualify.
Critics also argue that the program is being compromised by long waiting times caused by the backlog of applicants being processed at Canada's missions abroad.
Stewart explained that the latest numbers he has from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) show that only 524 skilled trades people were admitted as landed immigrants in 2003 and 2004.
The Canadian Experience Class was announced in the 2007 budget and is a key element of the Harper government's immigration plan.
CIC estimates that 10,000 to 12,000 people will come to Canada in 2008 under the program.
"How many of these workers will come to Alberta?" asked Stewart.
"If we assume 1,000 people come to Alberta, this is still a drop in the bucket."
According to the Construction Sector Council, 31,035 workers will be needed for Alberta to keep pace with investment new construction projects between 2008 and 2016.
Another 21,271 workers are required to replace retiring baby boomers in the same period.
Canada helping temporary foreign workers and foreign students to get residency
Last week the Canadian Department of Immigration and Citizenship announced the details of the proposed Canadian Experience Class, which helps temporary foreign workers and foreign student graduates get residency visas in Canada.
Canadian Visa Bureau, August 20, 2008
The new avenue for Canadian residency visas will mean work experience will have more weighting when the Immigration Department is considering a person's application for residency.
The Canadian Experience Class will help foreign nationals on a Canadian work permit or a Canadian study permit to use their managerial, professional, technical or trade work experience as points towards their applications for residency and citizenship.
The applicants using the Experience Class will still need to prove their English language ability and their occupational skill level. Final changes to the Immigration Bill will be made after a 15-day review period.
"The Canadian Experience Class is one more measure this government is proposing to make our immigration system more attractive and accessible to individuals with diverse skills from around the world, and more responsive to Canada's labour market needs," said the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Diane Finley. "This new proposed avenue for immigration would also go further to spread the benefits of immigration into smaller centres across Canada."
The Minister is hoping that the changes will encourage more people to stay in Canada permanently and attract more skilled workers to the country.
"Choosing newcomers based on knowledge of our labour market and experience within Canadian society would make Canada a more attractive destination for skilled individuals from around the world," added Minister Finley. "International students and skilled workers would be more likely to choose Canada if they knew their time in Canada and contribution to Canadian society would assist in their eligibility to apply to stay permanently."
However, according to the Journal of Commerce, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) has raised concern about the proposal.
"By restricting this benefit to only professional, technical and skilled occupations, the government is setting up a permanent underclass of unskilled temporary foreign workers who will be deprived of the rights to citizenship being extended only to elite workers," said Gil McGowan, Alberta Federation of Labour President.
Alberta is desperate for more skilled workers to move to the region; currently 900,000 skilled workers are waiting to get visas approved to move to Canada and Alberta are will be needing around 50,000 of them. According to the news provider, the Construction Sector Council has said 31,035 skilled workers will be needed to maintain development progress over the next eight years and a further 21,271 workers will be needed to replace the retiring baby boomer generation.
In related news, the Canadian Government has also recently amended the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program, the Foreign Credentials Referral Office, improved resettlement programs, and streamlined the application process for skilled migrants so that more skilled workers and temporary workers can contribute to the Canadian community.