Updating Alberta’s Labour Relation Code

Posted by on May 27, 2017 in Brian's Blog, Job losses, Labour relations, Politics | Comments Off on Updating Alberta’s Labour Relation Code

The Notley government has failed to include an anti-scab clause in its long-overdue revision of the Alberta Labour Relations Code. This is a big omission. The absence will come as a disappointment to every unionized employee who ever walked a picket line and watched replacement workers being brought in to do their jobs. But you never get everything you put on your Christmas list. Better to be grateful for what does arrive.

Full disclosure: I was one such employee in 1999-2000, when the Calgary Herald locked out its unionized editorial staff and left us walking a picket line for eight months. When I noticed that the feature obituary column I created was appearing in the paper under someone else’s byline, I thought of those cheesy “tribute” shows in Vegas where someone dressed as Dolly Parton comes out to sing “Jolene” and “Coat of Many Colours.” The guy who replaced me didn’t last long. Someone at the paper obviously realized that an impersonator can never be a substitute for the real thing.

I’m grateful for the Notley government’s move toward streamlining the union certification process. The opposition parties, predictably, termed the move anti-democratic. They were upset by the government’s partial elimination of what they call the “secret” ballot part of the process. “The secret ballot is a cornerstone of our democracy,” said Wildrose leader Brian Jean.

Jean knows well there’s no threat to democracy here. All the revised law says is that if more than 65 percent of the workers sign cards in favour of a union, automatic certification will follow. If 40 to 65 percent sign, a certification vote will still be required. And, yes, it will still be a “secret” ballot, as happens in every election in Canada.

Sixty-five percent is a big number. When we organized the Herald newsroom in 1998, 62 percent of 160 employees signed union cards. We thought this was a pretty good number for a workplace that had never been unionized in its 115-year history. But it wouldn’t have been good enough under the current legislation.

A more significant change, to my mind, is the introduction of first contract arbitration to resolve the impasse when an employer and a newly-certified union cannot come to terms.

If this provision had been in place in 1998, the Herald employees would have gained the protection of a collective agreement, and some of the pain associated with subsequent job cuts and other “efficiencies” would have been avoided. Every time a new round of layoffs was planned, the employer would have been obliged to sit down with the union to discuss how this could be fairly achieved.

But no collective agreement was ever signed and – when the pickets were lifted – there was no longer a union in the Herald newsroom. As a condition for ending the labour dispute with a buyout offer for departing employees, the company demanded the union be decertified.

I was one of the employees who left. This was a no-brainer for me. I knew life would be unbearable in a non-unionized newsroom run by anti-union types. Although the company promised the Labour Relations Board there would be no retribution, a number of my returning colleagues found otherwise. One had to sue to get back her job as an opinion columnist. Another was fired after reporting, accurately, that a station other than the one owned by the Herald’s corporate masters was the boss of the local TV news scene.

Since that time, the ownership of the Herald has changed. The Herald newsroom has been merged with the Calgary Sun newsroom and many experienced journalists have lost their jobs.

Would a union have prevented some of these job losses? Undoubtedly yes. A Sun writer put it candidly when asked why he was kept on and a more versatile Herald writer let go. “I came cheaper.” It brings to mind what I think whenever my plane is delayed at the airport for several hours because of mechanical problems. The contract went to the lowest bidder.

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Copyright 2017 Brian Brennan - Author