A group of Teamster organizers outside of another company.
A group of Teamster organizers outside of another company.

Alberta’s labour board choked off a union organizing campaign at a food-processing facility hit by a workplace fatality.

By Bernie Haggarty, Secretary-Treasurer, Teamsters Local Union 362

Picture this.

You work at a food-processing facility. The pay doesn’t keep up with the cost of living, and working conditions lag behind those at other sites. The bosses aren’t particularly kind with staff, and ongoing safety issues at the company have you worried.  

You and your colleagues decide it’s time to start thinking about a union. You reach out to your nearest Teamsters local, speak with organizers, and start signing union cards.

And before you know it, your campaign takes off! More co-workers join in, and feeling the pressure, management even starts making concessions and gives workers more time off.

And then, the unthinkable happens.

A well-liked colleague is trapped inside an industrial meat smoker. Someone turns the machine on by accident and a human being – your colleague – is cooked to death.

This may sound like a story from a movie, another era, or something that happens in other countries, but alas, this happened last year, in Edmonton, Alberta.

The incident sends the union campaign into overdrive. More and more coworkers realize the benefits of having a union. You finally have enough support to petition the Alberta Labour Relations Board for a vote on unionization. At last, a union is within reach!

Except, you live in Alberta.

Enter the Board

Alberta is notorious for having the most anti-worker and anti-union laws in Canada. It is the worst place to try to exercise your labour rights. It did not get this way by accident; years of corporate lobbying in the province twisted the system to suit the needs of bosses, not working families.

On paper, things are simple enough: get 40% of the workers to sign a union card, and the government holds a unionization vote. In practice, however, the regulations put delays and roadblocks at every step of the way.

At our food processing plant in Edmonton, the Alberta Labour Relations Board didn’t like that the Teamsters collected workers’ signatures electronically. They rejected the union’s petition, signed by well over 40% of employees, because nobody was physically present to witness the electronic signatures.

It’s an absurd argument, in a world where electronic signatures are commonplace, and where people can sign contracts by checking a box on a website. Electronic card signing is already an accepted practice across the country, and had even been accepted in Alberta on at least seven prior occasions.

Teamsters Local Union 362 immediately filed a legal challenge.

In any other province, a vote would have been ordered and the ballots sealed, and the appeal would have been heard in a matter of weeks. But in Alberta, the system is biased against unions and working people. It took months before the Teamsters could make their case and workers could cast their ballots.

Months of delays slowly drained the organizing drive’s momentum. The company used the delays to meet with workers to change their minds. Other employees would leave the workplace for other jobs. New hires would be brought on, further changing the make-up of the workplace.

Eight months later, the case was eventually heard, and a vote was finally ordered. But the damage was done. The union went on to lose, but by only 12 votes.

Albertans Deserve Better

Unions, at their core, want to help workers earn better wages, improve their working conditions, enjoy safer and healthier work, and generally improve life in the workplace and in our communities.

Nobody should oppose unions – except, perhaps, corporate executives who choose profits over safety. While fighting for their fair share, employees should not have to battle an institution that is supposed to be impartial.

In Alberta, the system is stacked against workers, with a labour board that actively takes sides. It’s time for Alberta to re-examine its labour laws and make them easier – not harder – for workers to join a union.