Will Verboeven/Ahead of the Heard
Those folks in the agriculture industry reading the details of the recently passed Bill 17, the NDP government’s new flagship labour relations legislation, might wonder how its going to affect their sector of the economy. In the backs of their minds they may think that as the government spent almost a year sponsoring consultation meetings on farmworker labour and employment standards there might be significant inclusion of the recommendations made by those who worked so earnestly on the issues.
In the end, however, only two recommendations were accepted – virtually everything else that was suggested or recommended was ignored by the government. I expect even some of the NDP partisan appointments to the consultation meetings might be disappointed that their many hours of deliberations were mostly for nought. But then the government’s approach was predictable – your humble writer predicted this outcome in a previous column.
The political reality is this – the NDP government was committed from day one to fully include farmworker rights in the Alberta Labour Code. They became even further committed to that policy after all the protests and demonstrations in the countryside in the fall of 2015. The cynicism of it all was proven when the farmworker rights consultation meetings they set up were stacked with NDP government friends, most of whom had no connection to the ag industry. Political observers would have seen that the consultation process was mainly a ruse to deflect criticism away from the government after they were humiliated at the demonstrations back in 2015. It worked rather well even though such political expediency probably cost the taxpayer close to a million dollars in honorariums, expenses and consultant fees for the meetings.
Another reality is this – every provincial NDP government ever elected significantly changes labour legislation to adhere to the wishes of labour unions operating in the province. NDP governments are beholden to their labour union soulmates who in many cases have spent millions of dollars propping up the NDP election after election. Add into that the fact that so many NDP MLAs, Ministers and their political office staff come straight out of the labour movement and their bureaucracy and it’s no wonder that labour union-friendly worker legislation gets enacted. That’s just political reality so it should come as no surprise that Bill 6 and Bill 17 were created by this government. Besides, this NDP government has very little rural representation and not much hope of garnering any new votes in the countryside, so sticking it to the agriculture sector with draconian labour legislation would have few political consequences. There also doesn’t appear to be much appetite in the rural community to launch protests and demonstrations like they did in 2015.
The biggest fear that agriculture producer groups have with Bill 17 is that it favours easy farmworker unionization on agricultural operations of virtually any size. The industry knew that allowing farmworkers to unionize was bedrock ideology for an NDP government, but the hope was that they would require a minimum number for that right, such as ten full-time employees. As it stands now, Bill 17 could allow even one fulltime farmworker to unionize. The legislation is also designed to make life difficult for any farmworker employer to discourage unionization, and to get rid of unionization once in place. It also now allows for the infiltration (known as salting) of farming operations by secret union activists to foment unionization by existing employees. That alone would raise the anxiety and mistrust of virtually every ag employer in the province. One sector that could be a first target of a unionization drive is feedlots and other large dairy and poultry intensive livestock operations. The only hope is that such worry is unwarranted considering the sparse history of farmworker unionization in other provinces where it has been allowed for years.
I expect that most producer organizations will holdback their outrage over Bill 17 and take the long-term political perspective. Putting the new labour and employment standards and regulations into force will take time and any unionization drive and certification process will take even more time. By then it may well be time for another provincial election. I suspect most share the view that it will be best to just wait the present government out and hopefully await a more agriculture-friendly government in two years.
Bill 17 has a lot more egregious consequences that will impact the ag sector but that would require many more columns. I will spare you further exasperation.