Wednesday, December 11, 2013

So what happens post-Bills 45 and 46?

Last Friday’s cabinet shuffle saw Thomas Lukaszuk moved from Enterprise and Advanced Education to the new Ministry of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour (JSTL). Replacing Lukaszuk in Advanced Ed (and as Deputy Premier) is Dave Hancock. Hancock was previously Minister of Human Services, which then included many of the organizational units that will comprise JSTL.

There was a certain amount of congratulations among Alberta PSE observers, with some suggesting that Lukaszuk has been moved and demoted because of their reaction to the $140-odd million in cuts he administered. I think this analysis is incorrect. Cabinet (not Lukaszuk) made the PSE cuts. And, after a $50m reversal, $100m of the cuts remain in effect. There is no indication that these will be reversed under Hancock and his first pronouncement continued Lukaszuk’s emphasis on commercialization.

As one of my colleagues noted, Hancock generally arrives in a Ministry, triggers a big policy review and then leaves (or is moved out) before anything much actually comes of the review. You can look at his time in advanced ed, education and human services for examples. Hancock is also a loyal Tory: witness his handling of Bills 45/46, the deaths of children in foster care, and changes to programming for persons with disabilities. He’s likely in PSE to simply calm the waters via a distracting and ultimately pointless stakeholder engagement process.

In the wake of Bills 45 and 46, Lukaszuk’s move to JSTL is profoundly disturbing for organized labour. Lukaszuk’s handling of the illegal prison-guard strike was clumsy and aggressive. Subsequently, he was appointed as chair of the Public Sector Resources Committee, which coordinates collective bargaining with the various public-sector unions. (“Coordinates collective bargaining”, in this context, seems to be “decides the outcome and legislates it.”)

Given Redford’s swing to the right, labour policy coming out of JSTL will likely have two main thrusts.

First, both the nurse and health-science contracts are coming up and I expect that, if they don’t take the government’s 0-0-1-1 pattern, they will face Bill 46-style legislation in the spring sitting. Tactically, Bill 45 ties their hands by making illegal walkouts prohibitively expensive. Even mass resignations might well trigger the punitive provisions of Bill 45. 

That said, nurses have a degree of public support that other government workers don’t so the end-game (while highly risky) might well be better for them than for other public sector unions. A useful primer on nursing strikes (focused on Nova Scotia) is available here: 

Second, on the “in for a penny, in for a pound” principle, some folks are suggesting that the Conservative Party really faces no consequence if it goes ahead with significant changes to the Labour Relations Code (which would include private-sector workers). The PC’s promised change in their 2012 platform that included:
A new PC government will introduce a ‘Paycheque Protection, Transparency and Freedom to Choose’ Act – making it mandatory for trade unions to:
  • Provide existing and prospective members with annual financial statements that summarize and disclose how dues were spent in the previous year; and 
  • Give members the ability to ‘opt-out’ of the proportion of union dues that fund activities unrelated to collective bargaining and grievance administration. 
We will also enact Amendments to the Labour Code that:
  • Close the ‘frivolous lawsuit loophole’.
  • Ban the imposition of fines against members who do work for non-union employers or employers with a non-signatory union. 
  • Enable parties to negotiate single collective agreements for all workers of a company or project, rather than separate agreements for each trade group. (p.30)
While experience teaches that the PCs won’t do everything they promised when campaigning, this list gives us some sense of potential changes. The changes to the Labour Relations Code mostly seem to be designed to open up unionized construction to non-union firms, like Merit Shop contractors. Merit Shop is a member of the Construction Competitiveness Coalition, a group that sought changes to the Labour Relations Code after making donations to the Tories.

The Tories dismissed concerns that there was ever any kind of quid pro quo, with Dave Hancock telling Global News: “That’s ridiculous. Money has never bought public policy.” I guess time will tell, but Merit Shop continued to push on the Paycheque Protection, Transparency and Freedom to Choose Act in its most recent op-ed piece in the Calgary Herald.

Despite the desires of non-union contractors, Alberta’s building trades unions have been mostly acquiescent and there is no real public clamouring among oil companies for (potentially disruptive) changes in the Labour Relations Code (although a review of the Labour Relations Code started by Lukaszuk when he was Minister of Employment and Immigration in 2011 is still outstanding as far as I can tell).

There likely would, however, be a political appetite among employers for laws allowing random drug testing of employees. While recent court and arbitral decisions have tended to run against random drug testing, this does not appear to be an important consideration for the Tories. Such legislation might woo back support from the petroleum industry that has migrated to the Wild Rose.

Unrelated to this, as Minister of JSTL, Lukaszuk will also likely be tasked with handling the province’s negotiations with the feds over the Canada Jobs Grant (CJG). The feds’ most recent proposal will cost all provinces a bundle of cash and likely gut training for social service clients as money will be transferred to training already employed oil-patch workers (who are better positioned to gain required financial support from employers).

On this file, Lukaszuk will be dealing with Jason Kenney who, in 2012, characterized Lukaszuk as “a complete and utter asshole.” (Perhaps an illustration of the “takes one to know one” maxim?) So that’s gonna go well.

-- Bob Barnetson

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