During the last provincial election Premier Alison Redford was a worrisome force for traditional right-wing ideologues. She was even labeled “leftie” by one national publication.
And of course she scared many old-school Tories in Alberta who bolted to the Wildrose Alliance, a party that now professes itself as the province's guardian of all things conservative.
For decades under Tory and Social Credit rule labour was a faction that was kept in check with arguably the weakest labour laws north of Alabama. However, there have been some significant waves created by the Tory government that may signal serious challenges to the long held conservative grip on labour.
On Aug. 14 the Redford government imposed first-contract binding arbitration in a labour dispute at an Edmonton seniors home. The province ordered workers at Revera Riverbend Retirement Residence to return to their jobs immediately because of what it called a “public emergency.”
Labour groups enthusiastically received the move. They have been trying for years to get the government to legislate first-contract binding arbitration as an essential and fair tool in the resolution of first contracts between unions and employers.
However, the Edmonton initiative is just one example of the Conservative's apparent softening towards labour.
For the past decade provincial labour groups have been campaigning to end the plight of Alberta's 12,000 farm workers, a forgotten group that toil with no legislative protection whatsoever.
Alberta remains the only province where farm workers are excluded from occupational health and safety (OHS) laws. They are also excluded from the Employment Standards Code, the Workers' Compensation Act and the Labour Code. Farm workers do not have the basic right to form a union.
The disregard for farm workers safety is also noticed by the courts, particularly since tracking of work related farm deaths since 1990 has revealed an average of 16 fatalities a year. In 2008, provincial court Judge Peter Barley made recommendations to include the agriculture sector in the provincial OHS after investigating the death of death of farm worker Kevin Chandler near High River. To date, the government has not moved.
However, there is a glimmer of hope for farm workers. It was reported in October, 2011 that Redford promised Eric Musekamp, president of the Farmworkers' Union of Alberta (FUA), that she was willing to finally help farm workers. It is 10 months later, and according to Musekamp, there has been no further movement.
Meanwhile, August 20 was Alberta Farm Worker Day, created by FUA in remembrance of Terry Rash, a farm worker who was stabbed to death in 1999 by his employer after accidentally tipping a water truck into a ditch. The employer received a four-year sentence.
For the FUA it is a day to raise awareness of the working conditions faced by agricultural workers in Alberta, and to remember those killed at work.
In the meantime, Musekamp and his supporters can only hope the Alberta government's apparent warming to labour is real. They have had enough of the lost lives on the farm, many of them simply forgotten. All of them gone without just consequence.
“My optimism remains but it is being tested,” said Musekamp. “I expect the law will ultimately prevail.”