Redford Tory laws to ban the very mention of union strikes delivers a blow to free speech

Redford Tory laws to ban the very mention of union strikes delivers a blow to free speech by Don Braid, December 3, 2013, Calgary Herald
With the passage of the Redford government’s astonishing new labour laws, it will be hard to see any point to public sector unions at all. The Bill 46 abolition of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees’ right to arbitration is startling enough, and gets most of the media attention. But the other piece of legislation, Bill 45, is in many ways even more radical in the context of Canada’s public sector labour relations. As before, most Alberta public employees won’t be permitted to strike. But from now on, they won’t even be able to talk about a strike or any disruptive labour action that could be seen as leading to a strike. If there’s a hint of a work stoppage, just a puff of smoke from a shop floor, the union will have to forfeit $1 million a day, unless it can convince the court it didn’t encourage the strike talk from locals or random militants.

Along with prohibitions against specific actions such as calling a strike vote, Bill 45 contains an exceptionally vague ban on “an act or threat to act that could reasonably be perceived as preparation for an employees’ strike.” Charter lawyers are about to cluster around this provision with sugar-plum dreams of Supreme Court of Canada arguments dancing in their heads. It’s hard to imagine a more blatant violation of free speech, a right that always implies a certain social anarchy to function usefully. People are not allowed to break laws, but they are permitted, except in obvious cases of threatening harm, to talk about challenging, testing, pushing or even breaking them. The offence is in the breaking, not the talking.

But not for Alberta’s public unions. Talking is now pretty much illegal.

The mere sight of pro-strike signs at demonstrations — like the three held at the legislature in recent days — could be used to bankrupt the unions. Aggressive prosecution could lead to a virtual shutdown of union criticism of the government. The PC government points to two triggers for these bills — the illegal wildcat strike by jail guards in the spring, and the failure to reach a deal with AUPE. To the Tories, the first justifies the heavy penalties for strike talk — even though such strikes are rare in Alberta and unions are always heavily penalized when they do strike illegally. This is hardly a rampant menace that calls for new laws. The second case is stranger still, because AUPE is acting not much differently than teachers or doctors in resisting government offers, and pushing conflict toward arbitration. Binding arbitration is a good system. It forces agreement, usually on reasonable terms for both parties. As many have noted, it was former premier Peter Lougheed’s olive branch to unions when he banned public sector strikes. But now, the Redford Tories say that if AUPE doesn’t settle, a deal will be imposed without arbitration. The government does have the power to impose contracts, and sometimes does it, most recently in the case of teachers. But it has never formally removed arbitration as an option. If this works politically for the PCs, look for it to spread to other unions. Over time, the practical danger could be that by leaving union leaders with no way to let members blow off steam, militancy could erupt in locals, breeding unpredictable work stoppages. These bills are bad policy that could lead to a lot of trouble. But the PCs know one thing in their bones — in tight economic times, pushing unions to act up is never a political loser. [Emphasis added]

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