Bishop's Blog

Reaction to Bill 12

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Many of you have been asking for my reaction to Bill 12. Now that we have concluded our holyweek observance, I am prepared to offer a few reflections for your consideration.

In the immediate run-up to Bill12, we witnessed a series of moves that testify to how deeply self-interest rather than the common good has grabbed a hold of the major players. Rather than face the problem of the chronic under funding of education in the province, the prevailing wisdom is to keep repeating the mantra, “We have no more money,” and then divide and conquer. “Don’t talk about kids, this is really important, this is business!”

The President of the Alberta Teacher Association (ATA) meets with the Premier and seemingly achieves through a direct meeting with the Premier what the ATA had not been able to get at the negotiating table, i.e. arbitration of all the outstanding issues. Did the ATA dupe the Premier or did the latter simply outflank the ATA?

Within days the Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) meets with the Premier and persuasively argues for the exclusion of any consideration of classroom conditions and the limitation of wage increases according to a board’s ability to pay.

The Premier either spins or reneges on the agreement with the ATA and sides with the ASBA, in all likelihood, the cheaper way out. This also takes some of the heat off the government, taxes won’t have to go up, and pits the ATA and the School Boards against one another.

Meanwhile, the government, still smarting from the judicial rebuke of Chief Justice Wachowich, hurriedly crafts the infamous Bill 12 and goes well beyond ASBA’s recommendations.

How well does Bill 12 reflect the Church’s social teaching? An admittedly cursory examination, impeded by my own lack of legal sophistication, nevertheless, reveals that it fails miserably.

In its social teachings, the Church firmly maintains that labour unions have an essential role to play in preventing the violation of the dignity of human work and serving as a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice. Without unions, working people frequently have no voice in society.

Bill 12 is biassed from the outset. The establishment and operation of the arbitration tribunal (Part 1) not only bumps things up disproportionately to the provincial level, partially muting the local voice, but also invests all power ultimately to the government appointed chair relative to the process and outcomes. Furthermore, Part 1,6 (2) establishes that the tribunal must be satisfied that an award can be implemented without an employer incurring a deficit, or if the employer already has a deficit, without adding to it. The result is a forgone conclusion, why even bother with the expense of a tribunal?

Through labour unions, workers are able to strive for just wages, decent working conditions, appropriate social benefits, and a democratic voice in the workplace.

The preamble to Bill 12 and Part 1,23, (1) state that although committed to a long term review, the number of students in a class, pupil-teacher ratios and the maximum time a teacher may be required to instruct students are not subject to arbitration. Why are they excluded? They certainly impact on the work place, the workers, are intertwined with wages and constitute key issues of the current labour dispute.

Through labour unions, workers are also able to press for changes in public policy and participate in a broader social movement for the building of a just society. In effect, the Church maintains that labour unions are an indispensable element of social life. No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. The right to organize also includes the right to assembly.

Part 2, 28 (1) certainly seems to threaten these rights.

Workers must be allowed to freely take part in the activity of these unions without risk of reprisal. They are indeed engaged in the struggle for social justice, but this is struggle for the common good, and not against others. Every profession can use them: agricultural workers, white-collar workers, teachers and employers. Workers should be assured of the right to strike without fear of penalty.

Part 2, 25 (2) decrees that an employee legally permitted or authorized under the Labour Relations Code is no longer permitted or authorized to strike and (4) an employer is no longer able to lock out employees. Part 2.26 effectively nixes any work-to-rule measures. Not only is strike action broadly defined in the Act but declared to be illegal. As for the penalties, Part 4, 33(1) states that if the ATA causes a strike contrary to this Act, it is guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding $1,000 in respect of each day or part of a day on which the offence occurs or continues. Part 4, 35 goes after the individual and threatens the same sanction.

Workers must use their collective power to contribute to the well-being of the whole community and should avoid pressing demands whose fulfillment would damage the common good and the rights of more vulnerable members of society. At the same time it is unfair to expect unions to make concessions if managers and shareholders do not make at least equal sacrifices. How can doctors, nurses, health care workers, and politicians be given double digit raises from the public purse, and teachers be expected to accept raises of 4 and 2 percent over two years?

The purpose of unions is not simply to defend the existing wages and prerogatives of the fraction of workers who belong to them, but also to enable workers to make positive and creative contributions to the community, and the larger society in an organized and cooperative way. This legislation is so punitive and insensitive that it will take a herculean effort to revive teacher morale and repair the damage it leaves in its wake.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

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