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Bill 195 and 32 | Tory attacks on labour rights from Ontario to Alberta

By: 
Peter Votsch VP, CUPE Local 7797 (in a personal capacity).

August 26, 2020

Conservative governments in Ontario and Alberta have used the cover of the Covid 19 pandemic to launch major attacks on the rights of workers, particularly those organized in trade unions.

Bill 195 - Ontario

Doug Ford’s Tories have moved from the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act (EMCPA), declared at the beginning of the pandemic in March, to Bill 195, passed this summer by the Tory majority in the legislature at Queen’s Park.

Bill 195 simultaneously ends the EMCPA, while in effect, through legislation, making it permanent. The EMCPA allowed the Tories to give employers’ the power to override legally negotiated and signed Collective Agreements in ways that could have a devastating impact on workers’ lives, and those of their families.

Under EMPCA, employers have the right to change negotiated shifts, workdays, vacations, and leaves. They could change job descriptions, impose layoffs without notice, bring in outside contractors in direct violation of an existing agreement, and of course, promote without regards to seniority (keep in mind the Tories’ and right wing media’s attacks on teachers’ seniority provisions last February and March).

While this may have its greatest effect on the public sector (“heroes”), such as healthcare, transportation, education, social services and long term care,  it can certainly be deployed in any sector, such as construction, where the Tories deem it to be appropriate. Coupled with Bill 124, which limits pay raises in the public sector to 1 %, it is likely to have a dampening effect, or worse, on upcoming bargaining rounds. It even has the potential to override leave provisions under the Employment Standards Act (ESA), such as Emergency Leaves, leaving open the question of further overrides of the ESA, possibly even parts of the Occupational Health & Safety Act (OHSA).

Bill 195 can be renewed indefinitely by cabinet, and will no doubt be around at least until the next election, when the Tory majority is up for election, and likely beyond, whomever is elected, as capitalist governments are not in the habit of abandoning useful tools that are handed to them, when it comes to our rights. That is, if we allow them to do so.

CUPE Ontario has initiated the “Restore Our Rights” campaign, along with Unifor and SEIU, and the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL). It will include a series of rallies and pickets in towns throughout Ontario, especially where there are sitting Tory MPPs. By October 28, plans are afoot to escalate the campaign, if these actions do not bring results. To emphasize the seriousness of this campaign, CUPE Ontario affiliated locals are asked to book off members of their executives, to take part in these actions. They are also asked to organize lunchtime gatherings in front of the workplace to build momentum, and educate workers and the public.

The imposition of EMPCA in March brought about pickets at hospitals and long term care homes throughout the Spring of 2020, and work refusals by TTC workers in Toronto, and also work refusals in the construction sector. These actions are an important start, and will have to be built on to be successful against this frontal attack on our rights at work.

Bill 32 - Alberta

Not to be outdone, Jason Kenney’s Tories in Alberta have brought in Bill 32, similarly an attack on workers’ rights.

Bill 32 brings in provisions and amendments to the Labour Relations Act that will , in effect, eliminate overtime pay (time-and-a-half) for all workers by allowing employers to average out work hours over an extended period. This can have a devastating effect on the workforce, forcing many to work unlimited overtime without appropriate compensation. Hungarian ‘strongman’ Viktor Orban brought in a similar law, called by Hungarians the “slave labour law”, provoking country wide demonstrations. Maybe Kenney is channeling is ‘internal Orban’.

But Bill 32 goes much further, and tips its hat dangerously towards US “Right to Work” anti-union laws. It will take away democratic control by union members of their dues, forcing them to allow individual members to opt out of what are deemed political or advocacy issues. These have traditionally been decided by workers elected from the shop floor to union conventions, where such decisions are made democratically. Kenney wishes to curtail union activism by making this difficult, if not impossible.

The Bill will also limit the right to picket (communicate with, or stall traffic) and secondary picketing. Under this provision, the pickets that went up at the Cargill plant when a sizeable section of the workforce was infected by Covid 19 due to working in close quarters, would be illegal.

Further provisions would give the Kenney regime what they couldn’t get federally under Harper: mandatory financial reporting of unions’ assets, allowing employers to be able to gauge if a union local is able to sustain a strike or not, a huge advantage in bargaining. If a settlement cannot be bargained, and both parties agree to an arbitrated settlement, Kenney’s Tories, like Harper’s Tories, are limiting the rights of arbitrators in brokering an agreement. All this under the surreal, populist rubric of “leveling the playing field”.

Finally, the legal age of work will now be 13 in Alberta – enough said.

Workers have a big fight on their hands, in both Ontario and Alberta, as the bosses there attempt to make us pay for the Covid crisis, which has already devastated so many lives and livelihoods. There is sure to be sparks of a pushback, which will emerge here and there. The labour movement and its supporters will have to be there in force when that happens.

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