This week, I sat down with Jason Foster to talk about the United Conservative Party government in Alberta and its many attacks on workers and the labour movement.
Jason is an associate professor of human resources and labour relations at Athabasca University. He is also director of the Parkland Institute, a public interest research institute affiliated with the University of Alberta. Prior to his academic career, Jason worked in the non-profit sector and in the labour movement, including 11 years as the director of policy analysis at the Alberta Federation of Labour. Jason is the author of Gigs, Hustles, and Temps: How Precarious Work Lowers Wages, Makes Canadians Poorer and Deprives Workers of Rights (2023); Defying Expectations: The Case of UFCW Local 401 (2018); and, with Bob Barnetson, Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces (2016).
Adam King: The United Conservative Party (UCP) governments of Jason Kenney and now Danielle Smith in Alberta have been perhaps the most right-wing provincial governments in Canada. With so much attention understandably on the UCP’s awful record on climate and its plans to restructure health care, among other things, the government’s attacks on labour have arguably received less focus. How would you broadly characterize the UCP’s approach to labour?
Jason Foster: I would argue that its general approach to labour is rather unprecedented. And you’re right, it’s kind of gone under the radar because they’ve done so many unprecedented things, including threatening to leave the Canada Pension Plan (CPP).
I would characterize what they’ve done in the last four and a half years as a drift towards ‘Americanizing’ labour and employment in Canada. From their approach to unions, to collective bargaining, to health and safety, to workers’ compensation, it’s been very antagonistic to workers in general — not only to unions.
The approach has been to try to codify principles informing labour and employment law from the United States, and it’s very different from the typical Canadian approach to these things.
AK: I’ve heard you argue that the UCP has gone farther than any other right-wing provincial government to roll back union rights and protections. What have they managed to do when it comes to unions specifically?
JF: Alberta has always been the most anti-union jurisdiction in the country with the least favourable labour laws. During the NDP government from 2015 to 2019, labour relations were essentially normalized. The NDP basically brought the province into the mainstream. They didn’t pass anything particularly earth-shattering, but they did fix the more egregious components of Alberta’s labour law.
The first thing the UCP did was to eliminate everything the NDP did. But they’ve now gone much further. Alberta now has the most stringent and restrictive picketing rules in the country. Workers are essentially barred from impeding anyone crossing a picket line. Union certification is now much more difficult, which makes organizing workers harder.
AK: Then there’s Bill 32 and the attack on union security and dues-deduction.
JF: That is perhaps the biggest piece of their anti-union platform, and it’s symbolic of their approach to unions. I call it “right-to-work lite.”
Essentially, every union is now required to divide the dues they collect between so-called “core” and “non-core” activities. Core activities are what the union does representing its members directly. For example, bargaining, negotiating with the employer, education — those kinds of things. Non-core activities are everything unions do in the broader community, including in the political arena. This includes political donations and even work with charities. It’s anything not directly connected to the union’s direct membership.
Only “core dues” can be deducted automatically from someone’s paycheque; members need to ‘opt-in’ to non-core dues deduction. In this sense, it’s much like the Janus decision in the United States, which effectively made the entire American public sector right-to-work.
This is why I call the UCP’s approach “right-to-work lite”: it’s much like the American right-to-work model where the individual’s ‘right’ not to participate is protected. This is unprecedented in any Canadian jurisdiction. Some conservative parties have campaigned on similar things, but none have ever implemented anything like this.
We haven’t seen a court challenge on it yet, but I suspect we will.
AK: What do you think such an unprecedented rollback of union rights could mean for workers in other provinces? Do you think this could encourage other conservative premiers to try something similar?
JF: I do. I think what we’ve learned about right populist politicians is that these people learn from one another. They watch what governments are able to get away with and they attempt to emulate it.
We’ve seen it recently in terms of gutting protections for transgender kids in schools, first in New Brunswick and then in Saskatchewan. If it looks like the UCP isn’t paying a political price for these attacks on labour, maybe [Saskatchewan premier] Scott Moe tries something similar. I could see Pierre Poilievre doing this on a national scale with a Conservative federal majority.
It comes down to what they think they can get away with, politically. The evidence shows that the right is pretty consistent on its desire to hamstring labour, especially when it comes to labour’s capacity to advocate politically and be part of public debate on key issues. I think, if they get an opportunity, they’ll take it.
AK: Beyond unions and labour relations, what has the UCP been up to when it comes to employment standards and occupational health and safety? They’ve infamously held the minimum wage at $15 per hour for a number of years but that’s hardly the extent of their “reforms.”
JF: This is where their attack on labour has really gone under the radar. The government’s moves to weaken employment standards have been remarkable.
They created a student minimum wage, so if you’re under 18, you essentially got a wage reduction thanks to the UCP.
Additionally, they’ve implemented a whole set of rules to make it easier for employers to evade employment standards laws. For example, new rules allow employers to make much greater use of “overtime averaging agreements.” In the past, these were limited to strict amounts of time. The UCP has set it up now so that clever employers would never have to pay overtime again. They can also impose these “overtime arrangements” on workers.
They’ve made changes to the Workers Compensation Board. According to our estimation, these changes transferred $500 million from workers, in the form of fewer benefits, to employers, through reduced premiums. Then, they gutted the rules governing joint health and safety committees and watered down the right to refuse unsafe work to such an extent that it’s likely not functional any longer.
The general approach is not necessarily to pass legislation and reduce workers’ rights on paper, but instead to change rules and regulations to make it easier for employers to evade the law.
AK: It seems like much of this has been done through regulatory rule-making, allowing the government to never have to table legislation and face public scrutiny on any of this.
JB: Yes, that’s right. The director of Occupational Health and Safety can just grant an employer exemption from a law. The director of Employment Standards can do the same. Most of these are administrative changes. In this sense, I don’t think we’re going to actually see a lot of labour legislation from this government. They’ve learned that they can make the changes they need without ever having to introduce a bill.
AK: This is a government that is openly pro-fossil fuel, but how would you describe its base of support more broadly, particularly among the capitalist class in Alberta? In other words, how popular is their agenda, particularly their labour agenda?
JF: They’ve tapped into a segment of the capitalist class who are more aggressive and upfront about their anti-worker animus.
Every government, regardless of political stripe, has at least one ear to the Chamber of Commerce and to other industry, employer associations. But many of these employer groups are largely “pro-stability.” They want the economy to tick along. They want to make their profits. They don’t want workers to get ‘uppity’ or for governments to make things ‘unbalanced.’
What’s different, I think, about the UCP is that they have the support of a group of people who don’t care about stability. They want to use instability in the favour of capital. They aren’t afraid to push more aggressive styles of politics and policy, whether or not it has broader support among the public.
I think that’s why this government does so much work to distract. That’s what’s going on with the CPP controversy. It’s why we see all this talk about the Sovereignty Act. They do seriously believe in those components of their agenda, but it’s also a very handy way to deflect attention away from issues that really matter — like the fact that the minimum wage hasn’t been increased since 2019.
This is also a very divided province, largely along urban-rural lines. The government is dominant outside of the big cities, and has virtually no support in Edmonton and Calgary. This kind of ‘rural populist’ agenda likely makes it easier to target workers in the cities, people in the low-wage service sector, migrant workers, workers concentrated in urban centres.
AK: What has been the labour movement’s response to Smith and the UCP? What’s needed to effectively resist the government’s attack on workers and unions?
JF: There’s been a lot of bluster but not a lot of action. There’s been strong rhetoric and efforts to get union members out to vote for the NDP. But when it comes to actually responding in a concerted way, we just haven’t seen it.
Everyone has their individual campaigns and issues that they’re pushing, but there hasn’t been much of an effort to build a broader labour movement. I think that’s the key issue.
We can galvanize people around healthcare issues, around the fight against privatization, and that can be quite effective. But in terms of mobilizing on issues of core importance to labour and workers, we haven’t seen the same coming together in a common front.
Despite this, I’m hopeful about 2024. This coming year over 250,000 public sector workers will be going into bargaining, including at all the big public bargaining tables covering education, postsecondary, healthcare.
There’s a golden opportunity here to coordinate and build together. Common timelines and strike deadlines could be created. There’s real potential. Whether labour will seize the opportunity, we’ll have to see.
I’m hopeful that labour can work together and put differences aside in order to fight back against a government that is thoroughly anti-worker.
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