Bill 17: A Unicorn or a Chimera?

Last week the NDP government introduced the Fair and Family-Friendly Workplaces Act (Bill 17).  It’s intended to update workplace legislation that became increasingly outdated under Progressive Conservative rule.

Premier Notley describes Bill 17 as a balanced middle of the road approach.  The Opposition is says it’s a “union-friendly omnibus bill” that should be split in two to prevent the government from “sneaking labour in with everything else.”

Is Bill 17 a unicorn or a chimera?  A force for good or a monster?

The Legislation

Bill 17 changes the employer/employee relationship in six areas:

  • Family-friendly leave: Most provinces have between 10 and 14 forms of job-protected leaves.  Alberta has four—maternity, paternity, reservist, and 8-week compassionate care.  The bill aligns eligibility for leave with more generous eligibilities provided by the feds and adds new unpaid leaves to support victims of domestic violence, those suffering short term illness, caring for sick children, bereavement, the disappearance of a child and attending citizenship ceremonies.
  • Youth employment is aligned with international labour conventions which set the minimum age for children doing light work, but won’t impact children performing chores, babysitting or involved in 4H.
  • Workplace standards changes will address banked overtime, hours of work, rest periods, compressed work weeks, vacation and holiday pay, minimum disability pay, and minimum termination notices.
  • Administrative penalties will be toughened up for employers who violate the law.
  • Labour relations changes require an employer and newly formed union to go to arbitration if they can’t reach an agreement within 90 days and (here’s the tricky part) if more than 65% of eligible employees sign a certification card, they’re be unionized without the need for a vote, unless the Labour Relations Board deems a vote is required.
  • Changes to the agricultural sector will give “waged, nonfamily workers the same rights as their peers in other sectors” subject to some exemptions.

An Omnibus Bill  

Horrors! say the Opposition.  It’s an omnibus bill in the worst tradition of he-who-tabled-monster-budget bills that included everything from finance and budgets to veterans’ benefits, anti-terrorism measures and changes to the Fisheries Act.

Leaving aside their hypocrisy, they’re just plain wrong.

Bill 17 focuses on the relationship between an employer and an employee, one on one or as part of a group.  That’s it.  The difficulty for the Opposition is that both aspects of this relationship appear in the same bill—the Opposition will have to be very careful when they explain to their constituents why they voted against it.

Card-based vs ballot-based certification  

The heart of the controversy swirls around the elimination of the vote by secret ballot if 65% plus one of the employees (a supermajority) sign certification cards.

Under the existing legislation if 40% or more of the employees signed certification cards, the Board will conduct a vote.  If the majority of the employees vote for the union, they’ll be unionized.  This is called “ballot-based certification”.

Under Bill 17, if 40% to 65% of the employees sign certification cards nothing changes. The Board conducts a vote and if the majority votes for the union, they’re unionized.

However, if more than 65% of the employees sign certification cards that’s it, they’re unionized.  There is no vote unless the Board has some concerns in which case it will conduct a vote.  This is called “card-based certification”.

The ballot-based certification requires a majority (50% plus one), the card-based certification requires a supermajority (65% plus one).

What’s the problem?


The elimination of the secret ballot in the case of a supermajority is driving the Opposition bonkers.


A chimera

PC MLA Ric McIver made an impassioned, if incoherent, argument that in the months that elapse between employees signing their certification cards and Board accepting them, everyone will know who is pro-union and who is anti-union, thus leaving them open to intimidation from the company and the union.

This is bizarre argument because the old system also requires employees to sign certification cards; if McIver is concerned that everyone will know who is pro- or anti-union based on their certification cards, then the threat of intimidation exists today.

It will be unchanged if the certification tally results in 45% to 65% signing up for a union because the old system still applies.

It will diminish if the certification tally results in more than 65% signing up for a union because they’ll be automatically unionized.  They won’t to wait for weeks or months for the ballot to be scheduled.

Secret ballots

The Opposition argues Bill 17 is a blow to democracy because the cards aren’t secret but the ballots are.

True, secret ballots are a hallmark of democracy, but companies are not democratic institutions.  They’re hierarchical institutions with power (continued employment, increased pay, and benefits) concentrated in the hands of the employer.

The blow to democracy argument is a red-herring.

The real issue

Labour researchers like Chris Riddell say management is twice as effective at opposing ballot-based certification—what we have today and will continue to have where 40% to 65% of the employees sign certification cards—than card-based certification as proposed by Bill 17 where 65% plus one employees sign up a union card.

Introducing card-based certification, even one requiring a supermajority, may make it easier for employees to unionize.  But this isn’t necessarily a given.

A wise CEO who’s rebuffed many unionization drives said the best way to keep your employees from unionizing is to treat them well.

Is Bill 17 a unicorn or a chimera?  It’s neither, it’s simply good business practice.

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11 Responses to Bill 17: A Unicorn or a Chimera?

  1. Gail says:

    No companies are not democratic institutions! Are schools?

    • Good question Gail. Schools aren’t democratic institutions either. The curriculum is developed by the government, teachers teach to the curriculum in a prescribed way and the range of options open to students is not up for debate (let alone a vote). I understand why certain limitations are applied to schools, the interesting question is whether there should be more latitude.

  2. J.E. Molnar says:

    The majority of Albertans no longer want to punish workers for being a part of an antiquated, feudal-like labour environment. Albertans no longer want companies in our province that exploit and punish workers who stand up for their rights to organize and bargaining fairly. Isn’t it the 21st century?

    As for the conservative opposition parties, they deserve to be shamed for their reckless attempt to spin the Labour Relations Code amendments as dystopian. The really bad news for the rest of us is more unhinged whining and fear mongering by conservative naysayers for a few more weeks until the legislation passes… and that’s if we’re lucky.

    • J.E. you nailed it when you said we’re in for weeks of “unhinged whining and fear mongering by the conservative naysayers”. When the government introduced Bill 17 in the Legislature the PC and WR opposition took (what I understand to be) an unusual step–they “called for division”. This procedure requires the division bells to be rung and after 15 minutes have elapsed a formal count to be taken so the names of each voting MLA and how he/she voted can be recorded in Hansard. Normally “division” happens later in the process. I think the conservative MLAs did it here to demonstrate that they opposed the bill so much that they wanted to record their opposition to it even before they’ve read it and debated it thoroughly. If this is how they behave on First Reading, god help us by the time they get to Third Reading. They’ll be swinging from the rafters.

  3. GoinFawr says:

    “…if more than 65% of eligible employees sign a certification card, they’re be unionized without the need for a vote…”

    hehe, is that “they’re be” like,
    “There be Dragons”?
    There be Unions!!
    Unions have definitely been pushed to the margins of the labour map for over four decades now, so it would be true enough… 🙂

    This bill was long overdue, anyone who thinks otherwise would send you alone and untrained down a hydrocarbon vapour-filled confined space, in the middle of a busy intersection, at night, for minimum wage; if they thought they could make a buck while getting away with it.

    Your observation regarding private business hierarchies being inherently undemocratic makes a salient point that the ‘uncompromising libertarian’ never addresses: unmitigated capitalism inevitably leads to plutocracy. Which is why a balanced mixed economy will always function the best for the most.

  4. Good catch GoinFawr! It’s a typo but I like your interpretation.
    Chris Riddell quotes political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson who say the strength of organized labour has been shown to have a positive impact on the development of social policies across the country, with the result that if the unions win, we all win.
    Hopefully your example of the untrained worker stuffed into a hydrocarbon vapour-filled space will remind the conservatives that it was the unions, not the corporations, who fought to end child labour, abysmal working conditions and brutally long working hours.

  5. Claudette Whiting says:

    And my heart soars with hope that this bill is passed. Thanks for the information and explanation Susan.

  6. GoinFawr says:

    a belated, off topic loaded question from me, the peanut gallery:

    Anyone here interested in where our federal finance minister Bill (Don’t call me ‘Francis’) Morneau is hanging out and who he is rubbing shoulders with this weekend? (Hint: Think “Virginia”)

    Funny, the CBC doesn’t mention it, Andrew Coyne isn’t commenting, I can’t find anything about it on the gov’t websites, yet some of the wealthiest, and therefore most influential people on the planet will have our finance minister’s ear, and he their’s, presumably.. weird, they are always loudly trumpeting every other gathering of international hoidy toidies, so why do I have to search every year to find out which of our self-purported ‘elites’ is attending this one?

    “They meet…behind closed doors to sell out Canadian sovereignty.” – John Turner, former Cdn. Prime Minister

    • GoinFawr, Virginia? All I’ve found is a news story saying Mr Morneau will be meeting with his American counterparts later this week. I’d love to be a fly on the wall to hear how he massages the Americans’ egos given the shadow that has fallen on US/Canada relations in the past few weeks–the escalating softwood dispute, the Boeing complaint, Canada putting a hold on its purchase of fighter planes as a result of the Boeing complaint, and Trudeau’s (muted) disapproval of Trump pulling out of the Paris Accord. I certainly hope those who “meet behind closed doors to seek out Canadian sovereignty” are paying attention!

  7. GoinFawr says:

    Chantilly, Virginia.
    Where the lace comes from according to the BIg Bopper

    Mr.Turner’s 2011 quote was regarding the Bilderberg Meetings!
    Where Mr. Morneau has been invited. He’s there right now, as far as I know.
    Does that make the former Prime Minister a ‘conspiracy’ theorist?

    “I’d love to be a fly on the wall to hear how he massages the Americans’ egos given the shadow that has fallen on US/Canada relations in the past few weeks–the escalating softwood dispute, the Boeing complaint, Canada putting a hold on its purchase of fighter planes as a result of the Boeing complaint, and Trudeau’s (muted) disapproval of Trump pulling out of the Paris Accord”

    No kidding; of course he’s sure to get some tips this weekend on what to say, though no one is apparently allowed to talk about what goes on there, so who can tell?

    I wonder if the current POTUS feels slighted for not being personally invited? Seems like something that would bug him, in a Rodney Dangerfield kind of way. Or are his ‘representatives’ at the meeting just more subtle than I can discern?

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