Monday, December 2, 2013

So what is behind Bill 45?

I’ve had a couple of emails from colleagues asking me what precipitated Alberta’s Bill 45 (the Public Sector Services Continuation Act), which imposes significant penalties on unions and workers when they undertake an illegal strike or even threaten such a strike.

Dave Hancock, Minister for Human Services, outlined several arguments for Bill 45 when he introduced it for second reading:
Mr. Hancock: The illegal strike provisions in the acts and regulations… have not been updated for 20 years. It was incumbent on government to ask if the penalties in place were still a sufficient deterrent to illegal strikes that negatively affect critical public services because these are services that are provided to the most vulnerable of Albertans. When illegal strike action gets in the way of these services, the confidence of Albertans in those services and the people who provide them is undermined.

…In essence, this bill is about protecting the Alberta taxpayer from personal or financial harm due to an illegal strike. It establishes a more comprehensive and responsive system to respond to the threat of illegal strikes or strikes themselves. That’s important, Mr. Speaker, because in some circumstances the threat of a strike requires significant mobilization of resources to avert harm in the event that a strike happens. … 
It is important to note, Mr. Speaker, that the government believes that the majority of workers in these sectors would not willingly take part in illegal activity. …However, once a union has called an illegal strike, workers are often caught between a rock and a hard place. Regardless of how they might feel individually, there’s always pressure on them to follow the dictates of their union leaders. Hansard, November 28, 2013, p. 3212
(As an aside, Laurie Blakeman’s rebuke that starts on page 3214 is worth a read.)
So basically Hancock is making three arguments for bill 45:
  1. Illegal strikes are costly and potentially jeopardize the well being of Albertans.
  2. The penalties for illegal strikes have not been effective at deterring or managing them.
  3. Unions pressurize workers to go on illegal strikes and that is unfair.
None of these arguments really stand up to even cursory scrutiny.
  1. There have been two illegal strikes in the last 10 years (one in 2012 and one in 2013), both attributable to ham-fisted management by the government. The overall cost of illegal strikes is small. And, while these illegal strikes caused some inconvenience to the public, there was no evidence of imminent danger to the public.
  2. The lack of illegal strikes (2 in a decade) and the short-lived nature of illegal strikes (1 day and 3 days, if memory serves) suggest that the existing penalties both deter and manage illegal strikes just fine.
  3. Both of the illegal strikes have been wildcat strikes. These are strikes not called by the union, but rather are spontaneous acts by frustrated workers (although I suspect that union structures have facilitated this kind of mobilization).
Since the emperor (fortunately figuratively!) has no clothes, we’re back to the basic question of why is the government enacting this legislation and why is it moving to do so so quickly? I can think of four potential explanations (none of which is mutually exclusive):
  1. Retribution: The government was forced to back down by the wildcat strike in health care and it (and more specifically the Deputy Premier) was embarrassed by (and defied during) the corrections-officer strike. Both of these strikes were by AUPE members and the harsh penalties in Bill 45 (and its roll out at the same time as the government announced wage-freeze legislation for AUPE’s civil service bargaining unit) suggests this is political payback. I don’t think it is possible to under-estimate the role of personal agendas and pettiness in Alberta politics.
  2. Fear of revolt: The spread of the wildcat strike highlighted for the government that strikes can be hard to control. The corrections-officer strike in particular appeared to be beyond the control of AUPE for awhile. Such unmanaged conflict is often the first step towards a general insurrection. And while government MLAs might support such civil disobedience in other countries, it frankly scares the pants off them when it happens here. Rather than addressing the root problem, the Tories have opted for repression (cause that always turns out well in the end…).
  3. Fear of the Wild Rose: While many government MLAs were elected by centerist voters who feared the Wild Rose, the Wild Rose’s reform efforts over the past year has made them appear less scary. Thus the Reford government needs to regain votes on the right before the next election and picking on public sector workers (who won’t be voting for her government MLAs again anyhow, given how the government is screwing them on pension reform) is a good way to look hawkish and perhaps regain some support among voters to went Wild Rose last time. It also distracts attention from the government’s inept handling of foster-care deaths and perhaps bolsters Premier Redford’s power in caucus—MLAs can’t be critical of the Premier when the government faces such criticism.
  4. Time and the Charter: It is two years until the next election and, in that time, it is likely that large portions of Bill 45 (and Bill 46) will be struck down as unconstitutional (I have not seen a detailed legal analysis yet, but the bills appear to violate freedom of expression and association as well as the right to equal treatment). So Redford gets the benefit of looking tough on unions, but having these Bills struck down (“that’s gosh-darned Liberal Charter”) will partly ameliorate the damage among the undecided by the time the election rolls around. In this way, she gets to have her cake and eat it too—perhaps cobbling together enough votes to hold onto government.
Overall, the motives underlying Bill 45 appear stunningly politically craven. And these bills demonstrate a lack of regard for constitutionally protected (albeit politically inconvenient) rights and freedoms. And these bills impose penalties on civil disobedience ($1m/day abatement levies) that are much harsher than those imposed on employers when they kill workers in the workplace ($500k maximum but most deaths aren’t prosecuted).

While I’m often dismayed by Alberta government policy, I’ve rarely been so disgusted by it or embarrassed to be an Albertan.

-- Bob Barnetson

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bob, great analysis. Let me add a couple of points to #3. Redford’s government may have been trying to recapture the votes they lost to the Wildrose by demonstrating a hard line on labour and likely expected a repeat of what’s happened in the past—the unions would be isolated with only NDP and Liberal support and the public would yawn. What the PCs did not bank on was the Wildrose siding with the unions, the NDP and the Liberals.

The Wildrose ended up in this position not because they’re courting the union vote, but because they believe in the sanctity of contract and due process of law. It’s fundamental to the efficient functioning of the marketplace. (Incidentally I’m not a Wildroser...just making observations).

The PCs overplayed their hand. Bills 45 and 46 are egregious. The opposition parties (with the help of the WR) managed to convey the evils of these bills to the media and a good chunk of the public who now see this legislation for what it is—an attack on our civil liberties in an effort to crush the unions for the reasons you’ve outlined in your post.

Thanks for keeping the spotlight on this very serious matter. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

--Susan Wright