Tuesday, October 2, 2018

What would UCP labour policy entail?

With a provincial election expected in the spring of 2019, it is useful to consider what labour policies Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) might advance if they are elected. Analysis is made tricky because, (1) while the UCP passed policy at a convention (which should be binding on the party due to Jason Kenney’s grass-roots guarantee), (2) Kenney announced “he holds the pen” on policies after the convention passed some super embarrassing ones.

To try and get a handle on what UCP labour policy might look like in practice I have canvassed Hansard and media statements, UCP policy statements, and social media postings. I’ll limit this post to changes to issues associated with the Employment Standards and Labour Relations Codes.

Employment Standards

Effective October 1, the Notley government will have increased Alberta’s minimum wage to $15 an hour—an increase of about 50% since 2015. The UCP (and its predecessor parties) have opposed this increase in the Legislature, variously asserting:
  1. Employers oppose it
  2. It will cause job losses and prices to rise, and
  3. It does not reduce poverty.
Kenney has been quiet on this issue (he likely wants to prevent the New Democrats from using the spectre of a minimum-wage rollback against him in te upcoming election). Kenney’s only comment in the Legislature was negative:
Mr. Kenney: …What do you think a 50 per cent increase in the minimum wage results in? Well, according to the Bank of Canada 60,000 job losses across the country. According to the C.D. Howe Institute 25,000 job losses in Alberta. Think about how – oh, my goodness – when New Democrats get on their moral high horse and pretend they have a monopoly on compassion, and then because union bosses tell them to, they bring in a policy that, according to the think tanks will kill 25,000 jobs for immigrants and youth. Where is the compassion for those who lost their jobs, Mr. Speaker? There is none. There’s no regard. (2018.04.05, p. 433).
The assertion that rising wages kill jobs seems to resonate with many Albertans. This may explain Kenney’s use of this narrative, despite there being limited and declining support for this position in the economics literature and good evidence that sectors that pay the minimum wage are experiencing growth in Alberta.

The NDs do not appear to have indexed the minimum wage to inflation (gotta save something for the 2019 campaign!) so a UCP government could freeze the minimum wage simply by taking no action to increase it. Over time, inflation would erode its value. Whether a freeze would satisfy the business lobby and more right-wing UCP members is unclear. While Kenney may be coy on a reduction now, as we’ve seen with Doug Ford, once in office, seemingly anything goes.

The Notley government has made a large number of minor changes to the Employment Standards Code. The UCP policy resolution promises a full and detailed review to ensure Alberta’s laws are comparable with other jurisdictions and make “workplaces safe and competitive”. Given that the recent changes to the Employment Standard Code were mostly about bringing it into line with other jurisdictions, I suspect such a review would identify few areas for change. It would be politically for the UCP to easier to just (further) lax enforcement of the law.

It is likely that the UCP would roll back the application of many employment standards to Alberta’s farms and ranches. Agriculture industry associations have indicated they do not support a full rollback (although I imagine they could be talked into some rollbacks…), perhaps because this would jeopardize the funding base of their new safety association.

Kenney’s response?
"What we hear from Alberta farmers loud and clear, not professional lobbyists but regular hardworking people in agriculture, is that this bill is a massive cost driver for them it is unnecessary red tape."
I suspect a significant rollback of farm-workers’ rights across all domains of labour policy would be in the cards. If done carefully, it should be possible for the UCP to prevent a successful constitutional challenge of such a rollback.

Labour Relations

The labour record of the Harper government (in which Kenney was a senior cabinet minister) was deeply regressive. It included:
  • back-to-work legislation, 
  • legislated settlements in anticipation of work stoppages, 
  • over-riding negotiated agreements, 
  • eliminating card-check certification, 
  • prohibitions on unions assisting women to make pay equity complaints, and mandating onerous union financial disclosures. 
Many UCP members are stridently anti-union. While the party has declined candidate nominations from those espousing that “unions are evil” and that “we should really ban all unions”, those sentiments run deep in the party. Even the most cursory glance at UCP social media accounts (such as Kenney’s Facebook page) yields lots of examples:

The UCP policy document specifically identifies eliminating the recent re-introduction of card-check certification processes and returning to mandatory votes. The evidence on this is unambiguous: giving employers time to interfere in workers’ decisions about whether or not they want union representation (via a mandatory vote) results in more employer interference, fewer certifications, and fewer union drives. Basically, it is an anti-union policy dressed up in the clothes of democracy and would almost certainly be implemented under the UCP.

Kenney has also promised to scrap remedial certification power for the Labour Board revoked. At present, the Board can certify a union if the employer poisons the well through unfair labour practices. Under previous Conservative governments, the only remedy the Board could offer was another drink from the same well (which, of course, is no remedy at all). First contract arbitration would also likely hit the skids.

The UCP policy document also proposes “giv[ing] individual members of labour organizations the right to determine whether or not their mandatory union dues are used to fund political activity and social advocacy.” The reason to pay attention to this proposal is that it is closely associated with the right-to-work movement, whereby union security clauses (which require every worker to pay union dues, because they benefit from a union contract) are profoundly limited or forbidden.

Right to work laws were on the agenda at the UCPs policy convention and appear to be supported by the riding associations of sitting MLAs. These so-called “right-to-work” laws are an effort to undermine the financial security of the union (which, in turn, limits its ability to oppose the employer). They also divert union resources from fighting the employer to collecting dues. About half of US states have right to work laws. Research on their effect is mixed, with results often confounded by other factors.

Overall, a UCP government is likely to make a concerted effort to tip the playing field back in favour of their corporate buddies. This is likely to have a negative effect on the wages and working conditions of Albertans, particularly low-wage Albertans.

If I have time, I’ll have a gander at what Alberta might expect in terms of UCP policy on workplace injury prevention and compensation, immigration, and training as well as the tone of public-sector labour relations.

Update October 15: Kenney recently indicated he would freeze the minimum wage, look at implementing a two-tier wage (based age),and rollback other labour law changes made by the NDs. So, pretty much what you'd expect.

-- Bob Barnetson

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