Alberta finally moves, cautiously, toward reforming labour laws, more boldly to ban cash-for-blood transactions
No sooner asked than answered, Alberta's NDP government announced a plan yesterday morning to consult with the public and the usual suspects on both sides of the labour relations aisle about the sorry state of Alberta's workplace laws.
Calling the fact Alberta’s labour laws haven’t been meaningfully updated since 1988 "staggering," Labour Minister Christina Gray used a news conference in the Legislature Building to announce a mercifully short consultation period.
The consultations will focus on the Alberta Labour Relations Code, the legislation that governs working relationships in unionized worksites, and the Employment Standards Code, the law that sets minimum standards for employment relationships on non-union worksites.
The whole consultation phase is supposed to be wrapped up by April 18.
So far, so good! Although, as was observed in this space yesterday, it's not entirely clear why we need to spend even a month studying policies like first contract compulsory arbitration for which there is an evident need and have been operating without problems in other provinces for decades.
There were certainly some good signs during Gray's news conference -- for example, she acknowledged openly that Alberta has badly fallen behind both the law in other provinces as well as decisions made by the courts in many aspects of labour relations, leaving us out of step with the rest of the country.
"Work life in Alberta has changed a lot over the last 30 years," the minister observed -- to which we can add a hearty no kidding! These have been three decades in which the whole shabby edifice of globalization, de-skilling, precarious work, institutionalized anti-unionism and other depredations of neoliberalism has taken deep root in Alberta and elsewhere on this continent.
Another good sign was the appointment of Edmonton labour lawyer Andrew Sims, respected by pretty well everyone in the field in this province. Sims has worked both for conservative and not-so-conservative governments on this file, and is well known as a mediator and arbitrator, and has managed to continue to be held in most everyone's esteem.
But there were also some not-so-good signs -- for example, there's still no timetable for getting any of this stuff signed off, let alone passed through the Legislature, and few hints of what actually might end up in legislation.
You can count on business groups, as also suggested here yesterday, to argue that you shouldn't fix what ain't broke, and to claim, furthermore, that not broken is a fair description of the state of Alberta's labour laws. That, of course, is baloney, but opponents are certain to try to stall for time in the hopes another election will be upon us with this essential job left undone.
The danger is that the NDP -- still spooked by the hysterical reaction to its farm-safety legislation last year -- will buy into this, giving the opposition time to gin up more anger.
I should pause here and declare my interest in this topic. I was one of the strikers in 1999 and 2000 at the Calgary Herald -- the folks Conrad Black described as "gangrenous limbs" who should be surgically lopped off -- and I saw for myself how Alberta's labour laws, and the lack of first-contract compulsory arbitration in particular, abetted an employer determined never to comply with its employees' legal right to be represented by a union.
I am also, paradoxically, grateful to his Lordship and his less lordly minions for saving me from the moribund daily newspaper business moments before it crumbled into dust -- more evidence of which we learned about just this past weekend.
Opponents of any change the NDP is likely to propose, I imagine, would be singing a different tune about the quality of Alberta's supposedly unbroken labour laws if there were a conservative government in the driver's seat in Edmonton. Then they would be crying for the nearly vertical labour relations playing field to be tilted even further in favour of employers.
Gray told the newser her goal, a laudable enough aim, is to ensure that Albertans are able not only go to work and contribute to the economy, but also to "care for themselves and their families."
She indicated the review will focus on hours of work, overtime, special leaves and collective bargaining rules. I'm going to assume that union organizing regulations are included under the last heading on that list.
She encouraged members of the public to complete a survey and provide their views through a website set up for this purpose -- work.alberta.ca/leg-review. If you're a veteran of an ugly strike in which the employer ignored your legal rights and got away with it, I'd strongly encourage you to take part.
This time, the submissions will not be published, a reasonable precaution to protect commenters favouring labour law reform from harassment by right-wing social media trolls.
NDP moves to ban unsavoury practice of selling blood for cash
Meanwhile, the government wasn’t fooling around at all yesterday when it took tough action banning private pay-for-plasma clinics and other commercial efforts to buy human blood in Alberta.
"Donating blood should not be viewed as a business venture, but as a public resource," Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said when she announced the introduction of the Voluntary Blood Donations Act.
So Albertans will be spared the unsavoury -- and sometimes unsafe -- practice of allowing corporations to offer $25 a pop to the most disadvantaged people in our society to sell their blood, presumably permitted in Saskatchewan by the same market-fundamentalist vampires who think you ought to be able to sell a kidney if you feel like it.
The act, introduced in the Legislature by the NDP, carries hefty penalties for individuals and corporations that pay donors for blood -- fines of up to $10,000 a day for a first offence and $50,000 a day for subsequent offences for individuals, and $100,000 and $500,000 daily for corporations.
The goal of the legislation, like laws in Ontario and Quebec and in line with the recommendations of the 1993 Royal Commission of Inquiry on the Blood System in Canada, is to prevent the province's voluntary blood donor pool from being depleted or put at risk from infected donors relying on donations for cash.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.Food & HealthLabourPolitics in CanadaAlberta politicsAlberta NDPblood donationslabour relationsChristina GraySarah HoffmanPay for PlasmaVoluntary Blood Donations ActAlberta Labour Relations Codecollective bargainingAlberta Employment Standards CodePrecarious WorkAndrew SimsCalgary Herald Strike
NDP organizers seemed almost giddy Sunday afternoon at the success of the de-facto launch of the party’s leadership race, the first candidates’ debate, at a downtown Ottawa hotel.
More than a 1,000 people attended, many young. Their evident enthusiasm indicated they thought it worth braving Ottawa’s wicked wind chill to be there. One person who attended rated the four candidates in this way:
- Guy Caron, because of his substantive ideas, candid way of expressing himself in both languages, and surprising flashes of humour;
- Niki Ashton, because of her poise and clear commitment to a progressive vision (with the caveat traditional working class NDP voters in Hamilton or Windsor might not relate to Ashton’s talk of such matters as intersectionality);
- Peter Julian, for his solid, if somewhat too-earnest-by-half, grasp of the issues; and
- Charlie Angus, who came in last mostly because his French seemed, to this debate watcher, a bit on the dubious side. The northern Ontario MP did get points for folksy charm, even if some thought he might have laid it on a bit thick at times.
Others thought all candidates acquitted themselves well, and none were either winners or losers. As one observer who has watched many NDP leadership debates over the decades put it: "Overall, I am unable to rank them with much confidence and am frankly impressed by the field."
Guy Caron, who normally seems like a fairly serious economist, got the biggest laugh when he said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might be quoting another Justin named Bieber during the next election campaign: "Is it too late to say sorry?"
The NDP candidates all took the unequivocal position that Trudeau has, indeed, let down the voters, that he used the time honoured Liberal tactic of campaigning from the left only to shift rightward once in office. Charlie Angus was speaking for them all when he said Trudeau is not a real progressive; he merely "plays one on TV."
But all candidates showed signs of understanding their party will have to do more than attack the current Prime Minister if it hopes to make significant inroads next time.
Harkening to the party's history, kitchen tables and social movements
Julian is the candidate most likely to evoke NDP tradition – and that of the CCF that preceded it. He is fond of pointing out he occupies the office in Parliament’s Centre Block that once belonged to Tommy Douglas; and he talks about how it took courage for the party, historically, to advocate policies that were neither fashionable nor popular at the time. Julian cites extending the franchise to Indigenous people, public pensions, and universal health care. Without the NDP and CCF before it, Julian says, Canada would be a meaner, less compassionate, less equal and less fair country.
Ashton unabashedly portrays herself as the candidate of young, marginalized and racialized Canadians. She is the only candidate to make consistent use of the language of social movements, such as Black Lives Matter. Her mission echoes the Politics Initiative (NPI), founded in 2001, and supported by folks such as Judy Rebick, on the social movement side, and Libby Davies, from the parliamentary party. The aim of the NPI was to bring the NDP closer to feminist, Indigenous, environmental and other grass roots organizations. The party of the left cannot succeed, NPI supporters argued, without the energy and commitment of community level activists. Ashton makes a similar case today, while being careful to avoid giving the impression she wants to create a left splinter faction in the party.
Charlie Angus sees the current task to be one of re-engaging with working class Canadians over their kitchen tables. Journalists have asked him if he sees himself as a sort of northern Bernie Sanders, but they have it wrong.
In truth, Angus is trying to channel Jack Layton, whose name he mentions frequently, not the Senator from Vermont. Like Layton, Angus has more faith in the power of optimism and empathy than in ideology. When asked if he considers himself to be “on the left” he answered: “I failed ideology 101.” Folksiness is Charlie Angus’ calling card. He evoked his grandmother in his closing remarks – she told him New Democrats were the only ones who would stand up for working people when the chips were down – and made a point of saying he wanted to put the "party" back into the Party. Fun is an important part of who we are, the onetime punk rocker said.
Guy Caron points out that all candidates have very similar goals. They all agree on what they want to achieve. They might differ, however, on how they want to achieve it. Caron cites his guaranteed annual income proposal as an example. The Rimouski MP believes such a measure would be a powerful weapon in the fight against growing inequality. Not the only weapon, he hastens to add, but one that would be worth trying.
As for the lessons of the disappointing 2015 election, only Caron brought up what, in Quebec, they call "la question identitaire" – meaning, in this case, the Niqab debate. It was not entirely clear what Caron would have done differently from Tom Mulcair, when one woman’s demand that she be allowed to wear a Niqab while swearing an oath of citizenship became a toxic election issue in Quebec. Caron seemed to be saying he agreed, substantively, with the party’s position on the Niqab – i.e., that it was within a person’s rights to wear it, if she so chose – but believed the NDP could have communicated its position more effectively during the last campaign. In particular, Caron said the party should have framed its stance with more "empathy" – but empathy for whom? That was not at all clear.
We will no doubt be hearing a lot more about this, and other issues, in the weeks and months to come. We have eight months to go before the party choses a new leader.NDPNDP Leadership 2017NDP leadershipguaranteed annual incomeniqabhilldispatchesHill DispatchesJack LaytonGuy CaronCharlie AngusNiki AshtonPeter JulianCA