PRESS RELEASE: FEBRUARY 14, 2006

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Minister having second thoughts about new labour law for Alberta- Big Suprise!

EDMONTON - Alberta's labour minister is backing away from his suggest-ion last fall that the province may need new labour laws in the wake of a violent strike at a meat packing plant.

Three months ago, Mike Cardinal said he would be giving serious consideration to so-called first contract legislation following the settlement of a three-week strike at Lakeside Packers.

But Cardinal told The Canadian Press on Friday that he no longer sees a need for a law that would force an arbitrated settlement for a first contract if the two sides fail to bargain a deal.

"I don't plan to make any changes," he said in an interview after touring the Lakeside slaughterhouse in Brooks, Alta. "Let's leave things as they are."

The minister says changes that labour groups have been pushing in Alberta "may happen someday," but he says this is not the right time.

"With a hot economy, in the next 10 years we're going to have 100,000 jobs that we may not be able to fill," he said. "It may even delay some of the projects that have been announced."

"There's enough work there for everybody."

Labour leaders expressed shock at hearing the minister's comments, especially after he promised in November to hold public consultations on first-contract legislation.

"We're deeply disappointed that the minister hasn't taken this opportunity to improve our labour laws," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"What the strike at Lakeside demonstrated for us is that our labour laws are broken and desperately need to be fixed."

McGowan says he was holding out hope after meeting with Cardinal last fall that "he understood the problem."

Tom Hesse, the chief union negotiator in the Lakeside dispute, was also dismayed that Cardinal had decided to drop any further discussion of a first-contract law.

"We would urge the minister to deal with the matter and not shirk it off," Hesse said from the Calgary offices of the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

Hesse said a first-contract law could have prevented the violence during the Lakeside strike that sent three pickets to hospital.

"The president of our union was driven off the road, there's outstanding criminal charges, millions and millions of dollars were spent on RCMP policing."

Cardinal says he still plans to have his officials review labour laws in other provinces, but he made no mention of public consultations.

"If something out there works better than what we have, then I don't think I have a problem having a serious look at it."

But McGowan says several other provinces already have first-contract legislation, including B.C., Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec. He says these laws have been used to avoid dozens of strikes.

"The strike that we had at Lakeside would not have happened in almost any other Canadian jurisdiction," he said. "It's frustrating for us when we know there's a solution."

Cardinal says he's satisfied that Alberta's labour laws are working well because nearly 95 per cent of all contracts are settlement without a strike or lockout.

He also says the workers at Lakeside, a subsidiary of U.S. food giant Tyson Foods, are being treated with respect following the strike.

The minister had expressed concern in an interview last fall over reports that workers were being forced to remain on the production line for hours without a break, even if this caused them to wet their pants.

Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson strongly denied these allegations last fall and repeated Friday that this was simply a spurious allegation by union leaders.

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