Greg Southam/Edmonton JournalAUPE members in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge join together with allies from across the labour movement to protest Bill 45 and 46 on December 2, 2013, in front of the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton.
CALGARY — Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s government is set to pass a bill that restricts union leaders — and, critics say, ordinary citizens as well — from calling for public sector strikes, under threat of fines of up to $1-million a day.
The legislation’s perceived attack on free speech has created odd allies, uniting the Alberta Federation of Labour and the right-wing Wildrose party.
“It’s Orwellian, is what it is,” said Gil McGowan, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. “Redford is suggesting that her government should act as the thought police.”
Expected to pass third reading on Thursday evening, Bills 45 and 46 would strip the Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE) the right to binding arbitration (strikes were made illegal in the late ’70s).
The bills also bar unions, their leaders, third parties — and, it is feared, ordinary Albertans — from counselling any kind of strike under threat of fines ranging from $500 to $1-million per day.
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“These bills go way too far over the line,” said Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson. Wildrose supports increasing penalties for union leaders who organized illegal strikes, but opposes proposals to remove binding arbitration and place limits on freedom of speech.
“I think this is going to get turfed [by the courts]. This law has all the hallmarks of poor legislation. It is very vague on what is meant by the ‘threat of an illegal strike.’ It impinges on freedom of speech in unnecessary ways,” he said.
Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk disagreed with this characterization of the bill, saying that, in the context of previous labour legislation, fines could only be levelled against those who have the authority to counsel a strike — bloggers, columnists, citizens and ordinary low-level union employees need not fear punishment.
Mr. Lukaszuk said previous legislation has already decided who has the authority to “counsel” a strike; someone like Mr. McGowan, if he acted in an organized way, could be fined up to $500 if it were proven he were orchestrating an illegal strike, Mr. Lukaszuk said.
We usually see this kind of language in a context where the underlying offence is serious, like inciting property damage or a riot
However, the bills would not affect “employees who simply express their frustration with the employer,” he said. “If indeed [the Labour Relations Board] found a person was in a position to counsel and had the authority and it resulted in an illegal strike, then, yes, this law would apply.”
Carissima Mathen, a constitutional law expert and assistant professor at the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa, called the bill overly broad and “ripe for challenge.” The courts have a record of recognizing the complexity of union negotiations, and leaders need to have the ability to discuss their tactics, she said.
“We usually see this kind of language in a context where the underlying offence is serious, like inciting property damage or a riot,” she said.
The bills, which will affect upcoming negotiations with AUPE, will effectively enforce a four-year contract with workers that will see nominal wage increases, Mr. McGowan said. He expects the same approach to be levelled on nurses and other public sector unions.
“If Redford rams through these pieces of legislation [on Thursday], it will usher in a generation of poisoned labour relations in Alberta,” he said. “If she continues governing this way and behaving this way towards citizens and members of Alberta’s broader civil society, she’ll be the last PC premier in Alberta’s history … she has shattered the progressive coalition that elected her in the last election.”