Monday, November 20, 2023

Bill 5 continues government interference in collective bargaining

Canada has a long tradition of governments using their power as legislators to give themselves a further advantage in their role as an employer. This is called permanent exceptionalism. Basically, governments pass laws undermining public-sector workers’ bargaining power, justifying them as temporary and exceptional interventions, except they are neither.

My colleagues Jason Foster and Susan Cake and I published a study of legislative interventions in labour relations from 2000 to 2020 in a recent issue of the Canadian Labour & Employment Law Journal (vol 25, issue 1) called “Catch me if you can”: Changing forms of permanent exceptionalism in response to Charter jurisprudence.”

The upshot is that, during a time when the Supreme Court was finding that workers’ associational rights in the Charter included the right to collectively bargain and strike free from substantial interference, the rate of government interference significantly increased (tripling over the 1990s). Basically, governments have become addicted to rigging the game against public-sector workers.

Back in 2019, Alberta’s UCP government passed the Public Sector Employers Act. The PSEA allowed the government to give public-sector employers secret and binding bargaining mandates. This made the 2020 round of public-sector bargaining a hollow and fettered process (our study about this is currently in review) and let the government drive home a combination of wage freezes, miserly wage increases, and other rollbacks. This built upon a similar strategy use by the NDP government in the 2017 round of bargaining that also delivered several years of wage freezes.

Presently, the legislature is debating Bill 5, which amends the PSEA. The headlines around this Act have focused on how the government will be better able to attract certain types of public-sector workers (i.e., wages are too low) while also now controlling the wages for non-unionized workers via secret bargaining directives. In the house, the NDP is flagging how Bill 5 opens the door to pork-barrelling for public-sector CEOs.

Almost no one is examining how Bill 5 extends the original secret mandate powers. The new bill allows the government to create employer committees and associations to coordinate (and perhaps perform) bargaining, potentially on sector-wide bases. This is pretty much how it works at the big tables in education, health-care, and the core civil service now.

But, for the 250-odd bargaining tables among agencies, boards, and commissions, these amendments would allow for big changes. In theory, employers could bargain cooperatively against dozens and dozens of disparate small unions and union locals, each bargaining on their own. Combined with an inflexible government mandate, this would make it very hard for these workers to get a decent deal and would make it much easier for the government (via these employers) to drive further concessions into these contracts. There are no similar provisions for sectoral bargaining arrangements for workers.

Alberta is already suffering from significant staffing shortages in health-care and education. Further grinding wages and hollowing out of public sector-bargaining (combined with the government threatening to take control of Albertan’s Canada Pension Plan contributions and its efforts to grab up public-sector pensions) will make Alberta an unattractive place for new graduates to stay.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Alberta Labour 2023 Annual Report

Alberta has released its 2023 annual report for the part of the government that was at one time called Labour and that relate to Albertans being safe and treated fairly in the workplace.

Fairness at Work Declines

The number of employment standards complaints filed were up by about a third in 2022/23. Complaints tend to reflect a fraction of overall violations; most workers don’t bother reporting things like wage theft.

This is an interesting reversal of a long-term decline in employment standards complaints.

Notably, the time to begin an investigation tripled and the time to resolve a complaint doubled. This has long been a bugbear in the employment standards system. The report asserts this reflects increasing volume and complexity.

The number of complaints investigated with signs of human trafficking jumped from 102 in 2021/22 to 208 in 20223/23.

The number of administrative penalties issued to employers dropped from 3 in 2021/22 to zero in 2022/23.

Safety: Losing the Will to Enforce

Worksite inspections plus re-inspections totalled 13,717 in 2023/23, down 12% from 15,569 in 2021/22. If you look later in the report for some context, this is about 6% fewer inspections/re-inspections than in 2018/19 (14,590), which was the last full year when the NDs were in power. At this rate, the inspection cycle is theoretically about once every 15 years (give or take).

About 80% of inspections were the results of complaints while the remaining 20% were targeting industries with safety problems. There were 1207 proactive inspections in 2022/23 resulting in 1725 orders issued. This is down from 2021/22, with 2100 inspections and 2548 orders. I couldn't find any historical data in this to provide context.

The number of investigations (e.g., of injuries) dropped by 60%, from 2245 in 2018/19 to 888 in 2022/23.

Orders written were up slightly over 2021/22 to 9099. This may be good (more enforcement) or may be bad (more violations occuring)—hard to say. If you look at 2018/19, there were 16,680 orders issued.

Ticketing of violators was down. There were 27 tickets with a total value of $11,280 issued in 2022/23. This is slightly fewer than in 2021/22 (32 tickets, $11,500). This reporting leaves out important context. If you look at 2018/19, there were 479 tickets issued.

Administrative penalties were also down. There were 17 penalties worth $62,025 issued in 2022/23. This is notably fewer than in 2021/22 (37, $314,250).

Convictions were also down, with 2022/23 seeing $1,740,750 in fines assessed. This is down from $1,919,000 in 2021/22. There was no reporting of the number of convictions but a hand count suggests the number is stable the last few years at around (hand-waggle) 10 per year, down from more than 20 in 2018/19.

Injury Rates are Up: Yeah, it’s mostly COVID.

The lost-time claim rate rose for at least the seventh straight year. Much, but not all, of this increase is due to COVID-19 injuries.

The disabling injury rate (lost-time plus modified work) is also up. Again, much but not all of the increase is due to COVID injuries.

The absence of meaningful government protocols related to aerosol spread put responsibility for these COVID-related increases squarely on the shoulders of government.

Interestingly, the absolute number of accepted fatalities is down to 120 (from 136). There is no real analysis of that change. It could be the result of changes in the workforce composition. It could also just be random variation (small numbers tends to be swingy).


Overall, it looks like the government continues to lose the will and/or capacity to meaningfully enforce workplace safety rules under the UCP. Not surprisingly, the rate of injury has risen, likely because workplaces are more dangerous.

There has also been an uptick in complaints about employment standards (basically wage theft). This could be caused by more workers knowing to and being willing to come forward. I’d guess, though, that this reflects employers knowing it is open-season on workers under the UCP and, thus, stealing wages more frequently.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

John Oliver on Union Busting

A friend sent me this clip of John Oliver exploring union busting in the United States.

Very applicable to Canada as well.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Climate change and safety: treeplanters and wildfire smoke

A few weeks back, the Tyee ran a story on the effect of increasing levels of wildfire smoke on tree planter OHS. This story is interesting because it looks at the effect of climate change on worker safety.

There are several reasons why this particular hazard and worker group are worth examining:
  • Intensity of exposure: Tree planters often work in close proximity to wildfires and their work is physically demanding (increasing respiration and heart rate). Consequently, they are likely to have one of the highest intensities of exposure to wildfire smoke.
  • Duration of exposure: In addition to long working days, most tree planters live in camps (e.g., tents) and lack any respite from the smoke in their off hours. This means these workers have a much longer duration of exposure than, say, a worker who might face dust in the workplace but then go home to clean air at the end of the day.
  • Lack of specific controls or OELs: There are no specific occupational exposure limits (OELs) for wildfire smoke and general OELs for dust were not designed with wildfire smoke (which has very tiny particles) in mind.
  • Latency: Injuries due to inhalation often have long latency periods and murky causality, thus the link between the work exposure and the ill-health can be hard to see.
  • Proxy for nonworkers: The exposures experienced by tree planters can be useful in predicting larger population effects caused by increased wildfire effects (essentially the dangerous working conditions experienced by these workers create a natural experiment).
  • Compliance: PPE slows tree planting work. Tree planters are generally paid on piece-rate basis. This pay structure basically forces tree planters to trade off their own health against their need to earn an adequate income and almost certainly reduces compliance. Contractors also have production targets, which means they too have an incentive to trade worker safety for profit.
A notable take-away from the article is the complete lack of a regulatory response to the risk posed by wildfire smoke. WorkSafeBC acknowledges the risk but can’t be arsed to issue any directives. Alberta’s OHS minister couldn’t even be bothered to respond to the reporter. This likely reflects regulatory capture of regulators by the forestry industry.

By contrast, Oregon and California require air quality monitoring and the availability of respirators when air quality gets to a specific point. This doesn’t mean these controls are adequate, but they are at least something.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Another worker dies, nothing much happens.

Yesterday, CBC reported that three companies had been charged in a November 2021 workplace death. The worker was testing a pipe when a valve broke and killed the worker. Among the notable parts of the story is that the employer failed to conduct a hazard assessment and failed to identify a hazard.

The effectiveness of the OHS system rests on employers identifying hazards. When an employer fails to do this rudimentary task, the rest of the system doesn’t work because unidentified hazards can’t be controlled and workers die as a result.\

Unfortunately, Alberta employers often don’t bother to identify hazards. A 2018 survey of 2000 Alberta workers found only 50% of their employers had hazard assessments. And only 59% regularly provided information about hazard-control strategies for at least some of the hazards workers faced.

So, now that OHS has filed charges almost two years after the event, what is likely to happen in this case? The rest of the CBC article talks about other fatalities and gives you a pretty good idea.

The employers’ lawyer(s) will likely stall some. A year or two from now, one of the employers will plead guilty to a single charge and pay a relatively small fine ($100-300k). In the meantime, it will be business as usual.

If you think this sounds like a pretty ineffective approach to protecting workers, you’d be right. The same study found that roughly 1 in 5 Alberta workers reported injuries (of varying degrees) each year and 1 in 11 received a disabling injury (where they could not do some or all of their job the next day).

Underlying ineffective enforcement is basically a lack of political will to punish employers to maiming and killing workers. Indeed, the UCP substantially weakened OHS laws during its first term. Not surprisingly, the rate of worker injury has risen under the UCP’s watch.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Six Worries for Workers This Labour Day

This blog was originally posted on the Parkland Institute blog.

What can Alberta workers expect from a United Conservative Party government over the next four years? The UCP’s first term cheapened labour costs for employers. Its 2023 election platform contained few promises related to labour and employment issues beyond the usual nostrums about low taxes creating jobs. We think workers should watch six issues.

1. Low wages, high unemployment, and Inequity

While the number of jobs in Alberta has increased, more job seekers and layoffs mean Alberta’s unemployment rate remains the fifth highest in Canada. For those with jobs, the purchasing power of their average hourly wage has fallen by 4.95% (or about $3,000 per worker) over the past 10 years. Alberta is only one of three provinces to experience this loss.

By October, Alberta’s minimum wage will be the third lowest in the country while Alberta’s cost of living remains among the highest. The UCP is unlikely to raise the minimum wage from 2018’s $15 per hour. This means inflation will further erode the purchasing power of 11.5% of Alberta workers, the majority of whom are women.

Not surprisingly, Alberta also continues to have the highest gender wage gap in Canada. In July of 2023, Alberta women earned 84 cents for every dollar men earned (averaging $31.52 per hour vs. $37.61 per hour). The UCP is unlikely to address this gap.

2. Illusion of low-cost childcare

Under an agreement with the federal government, the UCP has promised to implement $10 per day childcare by 2026 as well as create 70,000 additional spaces. While childcare fees have declined, $10 per day childcare is likely to be a chimera.

In February, the UCP established a cost-control framework for childcare. Government funding will ensure that “core” childcare is provided for $10 per day. But the UCP is encouraging providers to charge fees for “enhanced” childcare, such as food, activities, playground equipment, and better qualified staff. Providers are being told they do not have to spend all of these enhanced fees on the enhanced services (i.e., private providers can pad their profits with these fees).

Since demand for childcare spaces will continue to outstrip supply, parents who decline to pay the enhanced fees (i.e., want $10 per day childcare) may have difficulty securing a space because they reduce the providers’ profits. Further, low wages and limited training and professional development opportunities suggest the goal of 70,000 additional spaces may be wildly optimistic.

3. An Alberta Pension Plan

Alberta has been flirting with the idea of leaving the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and creating an Alberta Pension Plan (APP) since 2019, putatively to lower premiums. The UCP did not campaign on the APP, likely because more than half of Albertans are opposed to the idea.

Withdrawing from the CPP requires three years of notice. The terms of Alberta’s departure are difficult to predict since no jurisdiction has ever left the plan. Departure may constitute a major change in the plan, which would require the approval of 7 of the 10 provinces (representing two-thirds of the population) and the federal government.

There are many unanswered questions about an APP, including its financial stability and likely returns, operating cost, the portability of contributions, and its susceptibility to political meddling. Quebec’s experience with running its own pension plan suggests that doing so does not necessarily result in lower premiums.

4. Public-sector bargaining

In 2019, the UCP gave itself the power to foist secret bargaining mandates on public-sector employers, rendering collective bargaining a fettered and hollow process. All unions eventually settled for wage increases well below inflation, after years of prior wage freezes. Despite the negative impact that uncompetitive wages have on recruitment, retention, and productivity, it is likely the UCP will go back to this well in the hope of further grinding public-sector wages.

It is unclear whether Alberta’s public-sector workers and their unions have the will to meaningfully resist such a tactic. Resistance would require workers to strike and, perhaps, to do so illegally in the face of back-to-work legislation. That is a risky proposition for both workers and their unions’ leadership. That said, only last fall, Ontario’s unions forced the Ford government to walk back legislated contracts through an illegal strike by education workers that looked set to escalate to a general strike.

Public-sector workers are also likely to see further privatization of their jobs, as the UCP did with laundry and laboratory services in health care. The UCP may also provide more public funding to private-sector providers of education and health-care services.

5. Recruitment and Retention

Not surprisingly, declining compensation, childcare shortages, and uncertainty about the CPP have meant some Alberta employers are struggling to recruit and retain workers. The UCP has promised a $1,200 tax credit for workers in fields such as health care, childcare, and the skilled trades who come and work in Alberta for at least a year, and a $3,000 to $10,000 tax credit (spread over multiple years) for new graduates in unspecified fields who stay in Alberta to work.

These promises are essentially an admission that Alberta is not an attractive place to live and work. Neither promise is very significant in monetary terms and, if implemented, they are unlikely to have much impact on worker shortages because of the negative impact of the UCP’s education and health-care agenda. Increasing post-secondary tuition and a defective K-12 curriculum (e.g., “find gravity on a globe”) make Alberta an unattractive place to study or raise children. Ongoing staffing shortages, the unavailability of rural obstetrical care, and the botched privatization of laboratory services suggest the health-care system is also failing.

6. Union Dues and Bill 32

The UCP has promised to fix one of their controversial changes to Alberta’s labour laws (commonly called Bill 32) that accidentally cost community organizations $2.5 million in lost donations from unions. This happened because Bill 32 required unions to get each member to authorize dues deductions for activities beyond collective bargaining and contract administration. This was designed to constrain unions’ abilities to participate in political and advocacy campaigns but also affected donations.

Before the election, many unions quietly decided to simply ignore Bill 32. It will be interesting to watch how (and, indeed, if) the UCP handles enforcement. It may choose to pursue legal action against these unions. Or it may take the position Bill 32 achieved its political goals and ignore widespread non-compliance.


The UCP has a difficult course to navigate over the next four years. Its political goals include low taxes, low wages, a diminished public sector, and increased privatization. None of the outcomes of these goals are attractive to the skilled workers that Alberta requires. Indeed, declining real-dollar wages, failing health-care and education systems, unstable retirement income, and unavailable childcare are likely to impede both worker recruitment and retention.

-- Bob Barnetson, Susan Cake, and Jason Foster

Monday, July 24, 2023

Hollywood strikes highlight undercurrent of violence in labour relations

Two strikes, one affecting writers and the other actors, have brought most Hollywood productions to a stand-still over the past two months. 

You can read a summary here but the gist is major studios are trying to cheapen work in order to gain a greater portion of the surplus value generated by labour.

The bosses’ strategy, at least with respect to the Writers Guild of America, appears to be simply starving out the workers. According to Vanity Fair, the bosses expect writers to run out of money by October and, once the workers are facing homelessness, they will resume negotiations and press for concessions. Starving workers until they give up is an age-old employer tactic.

Actor Ron Perlman, in a now deleted video, reacted to the bosses’ plan this way:
The motherfucker who said we’re gonna keep this thing going until people start losing their houses and apartments — listen to me motherfucker. 
There’s a lot of ways to lose your house. Some of it is financial. Some of it is karma. And some of it is just figuring out who the fuck said that — and we know who said that — and where he fucking lives.

There’s a lot of ways to lose your house. You wish that on people? You wish that families starve while you’re making 27 fucking million dollars a year for creating nothing? Be careful motherfucker. Be really careful. Because that’s the kinda shit that stirs shit up.
Perlman’s statement got quite a lot of media play because it is out of step with most people’s understanding of how contemporary strikes play out (basically people stop working and walk around with signs until the boss decides to negotiate). Suggesting that bosses might face violent, real-world consequences for trying to get even richer by economically destroying workers’ lives is pretty uncommon these days.

That hasn't always been true, though. Underlying every job action is the potential for violence. Often it has been used by bosses to bust a strike. But, occasionally, workers will destroy the bosses’ property or attack them directly. The post-war labour compromise in Canada has attenuated this risk, in part by strictly regulating strikes and strike behaviour.

But, when the bosses refuse to negotiate in good faith (or the system looks otherwise completely rigged against them), worker commitment to obeying labour law may fray because it is no longer in their interest to do so.

We most often see this dynamic play out in wildcat strikes. But worker frustration doesn’t have to be channelled in that direction. A worker or smnall group of workers could, as Perlman hints, just destroy a boss’s house or yacht or factory or mine or whatever.

It is worthwhile for both bosses and workers to pay attention to the potential for this kind of behaviour as they strategize how to bargain. Bosses who decide to play hardball, may be opening Pandora’s box. And worker may be overlooking a significant source of leverage by discounting alternatives to picketing.

-- Bob Barnetson