AHEAD OF THE HEARD — Back in January of 2016, producer groups had some hope in resolving the farmworkers’ rights issue. They assumed the NDP government’s hand had been forced through months of demonstrations across the province. They even went ahead and formed a negotiating entity called the AgCoalition for Farm Safety. Virtually every significant producer group joined the initiative – an astonishing 98 per cent of producers were represented. In the generally fractious world of Alberta agricultural politics this was indeed a remarkable achievement. The group even set up technical sub-committees, a communications program, websites, and they held a series of organizational meetings at every level. They had their ducks in order and were ready to meet with the government from a position of strength and unity – gosh, almost like a union ready to begin negotiating a new labour contract.
But, as rational as this approach may have seemed, the NDP political strategists in the Premier’s office were not going to give the agriculture industry any satisfaction in response to the previous fall’s demonstrations, which they blamed on the producer groups. Essentially, the government ignored the AgCoalition’s existence; the Ag Minister did meet with the group’s leadership at their request but the meetings proved to be inconsequential. That dismal outcome was due to what the government was already scheming, unbeknownst to the producer groups. The government was already well along with setting up a consultative process that it would fully control and for which it could pre-determine the outcome, exclusive of any formal participation by the AgCoalition as the sole producer negotiator.
The beginning of that process began in December of 2015 when a recently hired NDP operative from B.C. was instructed by the Premier’s office to quietly contact producer groups to ascertain their position on farmworker rights. It was a somewhat devious endeavour as the groups that were contacted had no idea who this new government liaison person was and what her true intentions were. Most provided her with their group’s public position on the issue and not much else, a cautious approach considering there was no indication as to what the government was planning. After those contacts her conclusion seemingly was that the producer groups were adamant about their positions and were not going to cooperate with the government. I would boldly suggest that was part of the rationale the government used to go ahead and establish their own consultation process and minimize any participation by the producer groups. The producer groups were outfoxed, the government political strategists congratulated themselves, and the rest is history.
So where is industry with the issue now? Yes, there was indirect participation in the government-controlled meetings by producers, some of whom were AgCoaltion members. I expect however, that they all knew what the predictable outcome of the meetings was going to be. To date the producer groups and the AgCoalition have held their fire, but I suspect that has more to do with them having taken a calculated political decision.
I believe they have decided that this government will be gone in three years and that a new, more sympathetic government will repeal Bill 6 and start the process over directly with producer groups. I should say there is no going back to the old days when farmworkers had no employment, labour or WCB rights – those days are over. There would be legal and constitutional ramifications for any new government wilfully taking away such rights from a single identifiable group of workers. The unionization and right to strike issue is the big stumbling block for commercial ag producers.
The government could waffle and pass the legislation that everyone agrees on and leave the contentious issues out subject to further discussion with the industry. But unless this government is struck by divine intervention it will go ahead and legislate those rights with some qualifications, like a minimum unionization number and perhaps a critical strike timing exemption. I personally feel that any unionization will be very difficult at commercial operations.
The first target may be the JBS Lakeside feedlot farmworkers in Brooks, being their fellow company workers toiling across the road in the packing plant are already unionized. It will take time though, and if the government changes I expect a new administration will at the least remove the unionization and right to strike provisions from any existing NDP government farmworker legislation. There is still time for compromise, but I fear this train has already left the station – at least until it arrives at the next election stop.