AHEAD OF THE HEARD — The farmworkers’ rights issue and Bill 6 ramifications have been lying low for months as a government appointed committee has been holding consultative meetings on the topics. The committee and the meetings were intended to diffuse the controversy surrounding the government’s bungling of an earlier consultation process that saw Bill 6 being passed in December of 2015. The new meetings saw six technical working groups review how employment standards, labour relations, and OHS requirements could be applied to farmworkers and the agriculture industry. Two of the groups have now made recommendations to the ministers of Agriculture and Labour. One of the groups, however, could not reach consensus on labour relations – specifically the right of farmworkers to organize a union and the right to strike.
Predictably, farmer representatives on the committee were against the right to organize and strike while organized labour reps and other NDP surrogates on the committee were in favour. But everyone involved in this exercise knows the government fully intends to impose the full extent of the Alberta Labour Relations Code on the commercial agriculture industry, regardless of what recommendations are made by the consultation groups – that is the plan all along. As one might expect there is more to the story and it’s a saga of intractable ideology and ruthless political revenge.
Readers might recall that back in September of 2015 the agriculture and rural community erupted in protest across the province when the newly elected NDP government decided to impose farmworker rights legislation on the ag industry. The plan was to hold a series of public consultation meetings and then pass the legislation – it’s an old duplicitous political process that was also used by the previous government. The new government naively wanted to follow the same expedient trail to get the farmworker legislation quickly passed, but unlike the previous PC administration, the new NDP government had no social license from or connections to the agriculture sector to grease the political wheels. The public meetings soon disintegrated into an ideological clash with rural Alberta vigorously protesting against a new government they feared and detested. The widespread protests were a humbling experience for the government – it was a humiliation that NDP political strategists in the Premier’s office were not going to forget. They placed much of the blame for the anti-NDP government protest meetings on producer commodity groups, and they were going to seek their revenge by cutting those groups out of any new consultation processes.
Somewhat naively the ag producer groups assumed that the protest demonstrations had humbled the government and forced them to the negotiating table. They even formed a united negotiating team to deal directly with the government called the AgCoalition. It was as if farmers and ranchers had formed a union to negotiate on their behalf. One might have assumed that this would be familiar and acceptable to NDP government political strategists, most of whom were connected to trade unions. But political revenge would trump common sense, and the government decided to punish the producer groups by circumventing their negotiating entity, the AgCoalition.
The government created a new consultation process, appointing 70 people to an advisory committee that would review and make recommendations on farmworker rights legislation, but the fix was in from the start – only 30 per cent of the appointees were from the agriculture sector. The remaining appointees were connected to unions or were friends of the government. The government implication from the start was that any recommendations from the committee had to meet the standards of the Alberta Labour Relations Code and that would include the right to unionize and strike for farmworkers. To no one’s surprise, recommendations submitted so far by the stacked committee working groups adhere to the government’s agenda, except for the unionization issue which was opposed by the outvoted farmer representatives – which brings the issue right back to the beginning. I expect the reality is that the NDP government is probably already drafting the appropriate farmworker rights legislation which will include the right to unionize and strike – their ideology prevents them from any other consideration or compromise.
In my view this consultative process has been a costly waste of time considering that the government will do what it intended to all along and will fully include farmworkers in the Alberta Labour Relations Code. But there was a better way to deal with this issue that would have been less costly, less acrimonious, and would have seen willing ag industry partners working with the government. More next time.