Wage deferral bill could be to the UCP what farm safety was to NDP

In the early days of the Alberta NDP government, an emboldened caucus and cabinet of rural and urban MLAs introduced a bill that would dog them for the next four years.

It was known as Bill 6, officially called the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, but it was more commonly known as the farm safety bill.

Rural backlash

Under the bill, introduced in November 2015, fiercely independent farmers, not traditional supporters of the NDP in the first place, were required to have Workers’ Compensation Board coverage for their employees, perform hazard assessments, and adhere to a series of occupational health and safety rules.

It was something both the NDP and Liberals had frequently raised over the years, but could do little about while in opposition.

The farm safety bill was characterized by opponents and the PC and Wildrose opposition as an imposition into farm life, and an overreach by an ideologically driven NDP government.

Hostile protests sprang up across Alberta, and mobilized momentum against what was viewed as an anti-rural, anti-farm government.

The controversial farm safety act passed in December 2015 after weeks of protests.

Farmers and ranchers complained they were not told about the changes, which they worried would prevent children or neighbours from helping out on farms.

The NDP government was forced to walk back many of the original elements of the bill, then undertook substantial consultations.

That was something that had been missing the first time.

But the narrative and label of an anti-rural NDP government lingered, and carried through all the way to the election campaign this spring, with the UCP vowing to repeal the farm safety act when they took office.

Around the same time in 2015, a high-profile Alberta Conservative MP was in Ottawa in opposition.

Jason Kenney, viewed as a leading candidate to replace Stephen Harper as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, saw what was unfolding in Alberta.

He then catapulted himself into the crusade to unify and reignite the conservative agenda and parties in Alberta.

The rest is history.

Athabasca University professor Bob Barnetson said by taking on labour unions, the Kenney government is setting itself up to the same kind of fight the NDP faced with farmers over the farm safety bill. (CBC News)

The new UCP government has now similarly taken on a group early in its mandate not considered to be a traditional constituency. And like the former NDP government, it is poised for a protracted fight, says Bob Barnetson, a professor of labour relations at Athabasca University.

‘Poked the bear’

The UCP government has now introduced Bill 9, the Public Sector Arbitration Deferral Act.

After accepting two years of wage freezes, unions agreed to reopen wage discussions in year three of their collective agreements with the government.

The wage arbitration was to begin before the end of June, but that process is now on hold.

Finance Minister Travis Toews says the arbitration-deferral bill doesn’t break public sector contracts, but instead seeks to delay the process until late October, after the government receives a report on Alberta’s finances in mid-August.

“Jason Kenney has just poked the bear in much the same way the NDs did with their farm legislation,” Barnetson says.

To public sector labour organizations, Barnetson says, Bill 9 is much more than a delay, it’s a provocation that sets the stage for the next four years.

There could be work stoppages, strikes, and generally just bad will through the public service, he says.

“I would say this is perhaps going to be the UCPs farm legislation, because they are picking a fight with hundreds of thousands of really angry public servants who for the most part haven’t had a wage increase in years.”

Labour pushes back

On Thursday, labour leaders converged on the legislature, and along with dozens of supporters chanted “solidarity” in the rotunda.

The display of anger was pale in comparison to the province-wide demonstrations in 2015 against the farm safety bill, but these are early days for the unions that represent more than 180,000 employees.

In a twist of irony, Premier Jason Kenney issued a statement at the end of Alberta Public Service week on Friday, to recognize public employees.

“Alberta’s public servants go above and beyond to help the families, students, workers, consumers and business people who seek their support,and they do so with compassion and professionalism,” says the news release issued by Kenney.

“I look forward to working with a public service deeply committed to the people of this province.”

While Kenney says he looks forward to working with the public service, it appears the NDP has its own plan in mind for the rest of the session, and perhaps the next four years.

By already filibustering one bill proposing to change rates of holiday pay for employees, banked overtime, and union certification, the NDP opposition has signalled a willingness to go to the wall for its labour base.

By focusing so much attention on labour issues, it may also be a sign Rachel Notley’s caucus intends to cause as much disruption for the UCP government as the farm safety bill caused the NDP.

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