Alberta workers under the NDP, part two

In part two of our interview with Bob Barnetson, we talk about the state of organized labour in the province, from union organizing to political support for the New Democrats, from the Cold Lake lockout of care workers to the $15 minimum wage. Be sure to read part one of our interview here.

Bob Barnetson is Associate Professor of Labour Relations at Athabasca University in Alberta, and was interviewed by Doug Nesbitt, one of’s editors. How has organized labour in Alberta responded to all these legislative changes? Is organized labour working lockstep with the New Democrats or is there a tension between the two?

Alberta's NDP Labour Minister Christina Gray announcing $15 minimum wage plans in September, 2016.
Alberta’s NDP Labour Minister Christina Gray announcing $15 minimum wage plans in September, 2016.

Bob Barnetson: Overall what I’d say is that the Alberta Federation of Labour, which basically speaks for everybody but the building trades and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, has been highly supportive of the changes we’ve seen from a $15 minimum wage to health and safety reform, WCB reviews. There’s been quite an effort to be supportive of the New Democrat government. Whether they think the government is moving fast enough, that’s harder to gauge.

The test here is whether the New Democrats win a second term or not. Are workers better off after four years of New Democratic government, or not? And in what ways? That’s still a bit of an open question.

To their credit, the New Democrats have made some significant changes for some groups, particularly vulnerable groups: minimum wage earners, farm workers. And they’ve done it in a way that’s been politically costly to them. Employers have opposed minimum wage significantly, and particularly rural Alberta has opposed Bill 6. Good on them for doing that.

Have any of the Alberta’s new legislative changes on the labour front had any impact on workers in the oil industry?

By mid-2016, layoffs in the energy sector were estimated to be 44,000 by employers, and were likely much higher with Alberta being hit hardest.
By mid-2016, layoffs in the energy sector were estimated to be 44,000 by employers, and were likely much higher with Alberta being hit hardest.

The oil industry can basically be divided into upstream and downstream. Upstream is everything from dinosaurs to the refinery gate. Everything downstream is making stuff to your gasoline tank of your car. Downstream oil and gas, refineries, etc, is a reasonably unionized and union-dense sector of the economy. It’s big industrial plants. Upstream oil and gas is non-union and virulently so. It tends to be small operators with complicated subcontracting arrangements, and really tenuous employment. There’s no interest on the employer’s side to accept unionization in upstream oil and gas.

How does health and safety play out in non-union upstream oil and gas?

It’s a very hazardous occupation. It’s made more hazardous because it’s outdoors and the worksites tend to be highly mobile, so the hazards you face change minute to minute as the weather changes, as you move from site to site.

There’s a culture of get-r-done. Workers know if they make a fuss about exercising their health and safety rights, they’re not only likely to get fired but they’re likely to get blackballed in the industry. Workers are pretty smart. They can read the writing on the walls and they don’t tend to officially exert health and safety rules in the upstream oil and gas industry.

The New Democrats are quite low in the polls. Wildrose and even the PCs are ahead of them. Are the other parties looking at repealing any of the NDP labour reforms?

One of the things the New Democrats are struggling with is the price of oil is in the shitter. That’s catastrophic for Alberta’s economy. When oil prices are low, people get angry. When oil prices are good, the government can basically buy its way out of all sorts of electoral problems. That’s the nature of a petrostate, which is what Alberta is.

Wildrose leader Brian Jean speaking at anti-Bill 6 rally, December 2015.
Wildrose leader Brian Jean speaking at anti-Bill 6 rally, December 2015.

The New Democratic fortunes aren’t necessarily being driven by their policy choices but by people’s expectations that Premier Notley will somehow miraculously cause OPEC to constrain production and drive oil prices up. So, some of this is just Alberta craziness.

The Wildrose Party is the most extreme right-wing party in Alberta right now. It has a significant base in rural Alberta and are saying they will repeal Bill 6 in its entirety when they are elected. I think that is a bit of a hollow promise because they will run up against Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] issues if they repeal Bill 6 in its entirety. They may well be able to make amendments as the Harris government did when it came to power in Ontario after Bob Rae enact fulsome labour protections for farm workers. Harris rolled it back. He got his knuckles rapped, but eventually you came to a so-so system. That might be the path we see. Certainly the Wildrose has been beating the drum around Bill 6 to lock up the conservative vote in rural Alberta.

Where is the base of political support for labour reform?

At a very high level you can divide Alberta electorally into three camps. Edmonton, highly unionized, is the capital with lots of public servants and lots of construction. Basically, it’s more progressive than the rest of the province, politically. It’s going to vote New Democrat.

Rural Alberta, which is basically everything but Edmonton and Calgary, is likely going to mostly Wildrose with some exceptions. There are lots of different rural Albertas. Medium-sized cities, some of which are quite progressive, some of which aren’t. Then there’s smaller towns and hamlets which more or less tend to vote quite conservative.

The last four Alberta elections (click for larger graphic)
The last four Alberta elections (click for larger graphic)

That leaves Calgary which is the other third of the seats in the legislature up for grabs. Calgary is a strange city. It’s very urban and in many ways quite progressive but it’s also very tied to the oil and gas industry which tends to be a profoundly conservative industry in its political support, and it’s subject to wild swings. Right now, unemployment in Calgary is much higher than in Edmonton because of the low price of oil and gas. Calgary will swing back and forth. Which way individual seats break is up in the air. That’s the electoral map looking forward to the next election.

How has the $15 minimum wage increase played out?

It was a surprisingly cagey move by the New Democrats. It doesn’t have all that much effect. Maybe three percent of Albertans are earning the minimum wage. It’s a phased increase that will reach $15 in 2018, but at least it’s some sort of movement towards some sort of living wage.

Paying people at the very bottom of the scale closer to a living wage has brought political support. When employers oppose it, it really highlights for voters the craven self-interest of the employer lobby. Who can be opposed to a single mother working fifty hours a week, maybe two or more jobs, earning a whole $15 an hour? It’s pretty hard to stomp down on that.

Employer groups like the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), and these astroturf groups like the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, talk shit about the minimum wage – I just think they get no traction on that. They just show themselves to be employers’ stooges.

What is the state of the unions in Alberta in terms of strength and organizing?

Union density in Alberta is the lowest in Canada. It’s about 22 or 23 percent. It’s highly concentrated in the public sector which is about 68 percent unionized. The private sector is only about 10 percent, maybe, unionized. That tends to be concentrated in industrial construction, grocery and warehousing.

Alberta's declining union density and rising inequality, 1982-2011. Source.
Alberta’s declining union density and rising inequality, 1982-2011. Source.

It is a province where, according to some recent data I saw, only about half of people believe unions improve the lives of workers, which is quite striking because pretty clearly the evidence suggests they do. That’s a pretty counter-factual opinion to hold.

Overall, there’s not a lot of organizing going on. Most of the big employers in Alberta that are going to be organized are basically organized. It leaves smaller units and those are tougher to organize. They’re less economically viable for unions to organize. And Alberta’s labour laws make it harder to organize.

One of the issues in Alberta that others may not appreciate is that Alberta is really fucking big. It’s not very densely inhabited. You have seven urban centres where you have significant populations of unionized workers. Eighty percent of unionized workers are in the seven biggest cities. The other twenty percent are what I would think of as rural Alberta. About 75 percent of them [rural unionized workers] are in the public sector, and most of the rest are in giant bargaining units in slaughterhouses, mines, mills, hotels. The geography of Alberta makes organizing difficult. It’s a diffuse population and conservative politics tend to go with small town parts of the country.

Where we’re seeing significant organizing campaigns right now is in the private care facilities that the former Progressive Conservative government created, particularly in rural Alberta. So, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which isn’t a member of the AFL, has been staging some pretty aggressive organizing with these private care providers who basically grind down wages to increase their profits. I think AUPE’s strategy is to try and lock up that sector and take away that advantage, and then dampen the enthusiasm of whatever government comes next for increased privatization. That’s a bright spot.

Care workers in Cold Lake were locked out in December in a first contract fight. The workers joined AUPE and now they’re locked out by one of these private care providers, Points West Living, which is also bringing in scabs. Is this going to have an impact on the NDP government? What is the NDP government’s position on privatization?

So yes, there has been a lock out. It is notable that the workers are willing to withstand a lock out in pursuit of contractual demands for mandatory replacement workers when someone calls in sick—basically they are demanding decent patient care conditions from this private provider.

15873229_1417156384995602_5554856185575707025_nAs the lockout drags on, there will be mounting pressure from labour supporters within the New Democratic Party for the government to intervene on behalf of the workers and the residents. This could come in the form of a public emergency tribunal (PET, basically arbitration) or in the form of pressure on the employer.

The New Democrats are a bit stuck in that the senior’s care system they inherited from the Tories has a big private-sector component. There is no realistic way to get rid of these employers in the short term. And alienating private providers via heavy-handed intervention is likely to cause future problems if the employers decide to push back.

I’ve no idea where the New Democrats stand on private providers. AUPE being out of the AFL means the AFL has been pretty quiet. But the United Nurses of Alberta will soon be in bargaining with a private seniors’ care provider and, if that hits the rocks, the AFL will face pressure to argue along the same lines as AUPE.

How are unions recognized in Alberta? Is there a card-check option or is all secret ballot?

In Alberta, it’s all secret ballot. You submit to the labour board evidence that at least 40 percent of the workplace is in favour: a petition or cards. Then the labour board holds a secret-ballot vote, theory, within ten working days of your application. Any objections or concerns get sorted out later.

Right now, when there’s a certification vote, the employer’s got maybe two to four weeks to terrorize workers and if that puts a chill on the organizing campaign and pooches the vote, there’s basically no consequence. They poison the well. Basically, your campaign is fucked. And if you do organize, employers can just delay, delay, delay, target your supporters, and they’re looking at a revocation (decertification) vote a year down the road.

At present, organizing would be a hard go and I can’t say that I’m super hopeful that there’s going to be an uptick in organizing but things that would help organizing are card check, first contract arbitration, and meaningful penalties such as automatic certification for employer meddling.

It’s a brutal system that the Progressive Conservatives constructed to hamstring organized labour and hopefully the New Democrats will bring it back to an even keel such that workers have a meaningful opportunity to exercise their associational rights.

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