A private ballot vote, not trickery.That’s what will be required for Alberta workers to form a union once legislation under Bill 2, the Open for Business Act, becomes law in Alberta.And that news has some Calgary construction workers who unwittingly made history in what was believed to be Alberta’s first union certification without an employee vote celebrating that they may be one of the last.“This is very good news for people like me,” one of the “tricked” workers said Tuesday.“I heard that that law that made me feel like a fool, like a powerless fool, is going to be changed and I think that’s good,” said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of union retaliation.That worker, who struggles with English, says being tricked into signing a union card back in late 2017 caused him much stress and ultimately led to smaller paycheques.On Sept. 1, 2017, the then-Alberta NDP government changed union certification labour rules under what was euphemistically called the Fair and Family-Friendly Workplaces Act. What happened was members of Local 1111 of the Construction and Specialized Workers’ Union (which has since been taken over by Local 92) approached workers with Icon West Construction at their work site in downtown Calgary.Some workers, who had previously worked for the union, were told that they owed as much as $250 in past dues, but that the union had a promotion and if they paid $2, their debt to the union would be wiped out. So they paid their toonie and signed a card.Rather than signing a receipt like they were told, however, these workers were “duped” into signing up for the union, since 65 per cent of the 18 staff did so as well.One labourer told Postmedia at the time that their income dropped from $28 per hour to $25.37, as a result of the union certification being approved by the Alberta Labour Relations Board. Then the union took another $1.06 per hour from their pay as well as another monthly fee in dues, and their overtime was cut as well. They were often down $700 per paycheque as a result of the certification without a vote.Bill 2 will restore the mandatory secret ballot for all union certification votes and return a 90-day period for unions to provide evidence of employee support for certification.The labourer, who also didn’t want to be named, ended up having to find employment at another non-union shop just to make ends meet, with children to feed and clothe.Experienced workers saw their pay decrease and inexperienced workers received hikes in pay, but often not for long.Blake Leew, the construction manager for Icon, which is almost finished building the Telus Sky building at Centre Street and 7th Avenue, said being forced to pay every worker the same wasn’t good for anyone.
Construction workers work on a balcony high on the side of the Telus Sky building in Calgary.
Gavin Young /
“We lost a couple of really good employees over it. They left and got employment elsewhere because they didn’t want to accept lower pay and because the whole experience left a bad taste in their mouths,” said Leew.“Some of the newer workers who got a raise, we ended up laying some of them off because they simply weren’t worth the extra cost. We were paying entry level people $18 to $19 per hour and that went up to more than $25, plus pension and other benefits, and we just couldn’t justify spending that kind of money on entry level people. If we’re going to spend that money we’ll hire experienced people.”That’s the unintended consequence of the old law. The inexperienced stay inexperienced and can’t find work to gain experience.Leew says that becoming a union shop turned out OK in the end. There was a pool of experienced workers to draw from when needed, but it caused a lot of angst and was unfair.Another worker said: “Changing this law gives people the right to decide their own fate. We’re supposed to be a democracy not a dictatorship that uses shady practices. If you vote, even if it doesn’t go your way, you can accept that, but few of us accepted what happened to us, even some people who were better off in the end.”Dwayne Chomyn, a labour and employment lawyer with Neuman Thompson based out of Edmonton, says Bill 2 is exactly what Premier Jason Kenney vowed to deliver during the spring election campaign and now he’s delivering.Chomyn says automatic certification increases “union density” for a simple reason — people only hear one side of the discussion.“I was in a sawmill once where 100 per cent of the employees signed the card for automatic certification, including some of the managers. When I asked them ‘why?’ they said, ‘Well, on the way out, the booth was there and everybody expected you to sign.’ There was peer pressure there. There’s nothing secret about it or anything. So, they don’t hear the other side.”“But,” adds Chomyn, “when you have a vote, you get to hear two sides of the story when they cast their ballot.”Not everything in Bill 2 sits well with all Albertans. Paying students under age 18 a lower minimum wage than adults is uncomfortable, but for some youth who are having trouble getting a chance at that all-important first job, it’s a necessary evil.For that first tricked worker, he’s relieved that no other workers will have to go through what he went through.“I felt really powerless when that happened to me. I would never get fooled again but someone else might have, so this is good news.”Licia Corbella is a Postmedia columnist. email@example.com