Alberta’s public employees should strike

They could never take away freedom of expression all at once for the same reason nobody’s first sexual experience is hopping out of a plane naked getting whipped by a dominatrix, trusting she’ll open the parachute on time—because you’re all tied up thanks to her Japanese rope bondage prowess and you can’t move your arms—and then repaying her with a hearty serving of barrier-free analingus before arranging the landing such that she slides neatly onto your erect penis (or throbbing strap-on… ladies).

Of course not. First you work your way up to just sex. Then maybe you experiment with light bondage, dental dams, … skydiving. And before you know it, the situation above is the only thing that gets you off any more.

Only sex is fun and taking away rights isn’t. The point is, what can seem far away and unachievable can become so matter-of-fact and accepted given enough steps where somebody stops and says, “see, it’s not so bad right now, huh?” When the end result is good, but just initially intimidating, that’s fine. But when the end result is bad, well, we have a problem.

Which leads me to this. In order to avoid the problem, if you’re a public employee in Alberta, I urge you to strike. You should strike as long as Bill 45 is in place. Because Bill 45 is how it starts.

Okay, I’m a journalist, and I try to keep kind of a balance. I obviously have my biases, try to be aware of them, and try to compensate for them by ensuring I at least try to speak to people who don’t agree with me. I don’t think we get anywhere by pretending that journalists aren’t biased, but it’s a pretense we—readers and writers—all dance anyhow.

One of my biases, and one that every journalist, every writer, every person should have, and one that I will not compensate on is for freedom of expression.

According to Alberta’s Bill 45, a person conselling a public employee to strike is breaking the law. I could be fined for this article, once it comes into force. I don’t plan to take it down, anyhow. And I’ll probably post it around a second time just to make damn sure I break the law.

Here’s the section in question. Note (4).

4(1) No employee and no trade union or officer or representative of a trade union shall cause or consent to a strike.

(2) No employee and no officer or representative of a trade union shall engage in or continue to engage in any conduct that constitutes a strike threat or a strike.

(3) No trade union shall engage in or continue to engage in any conduct that constitutes a strike threat.

(4) No person shall counsel a person to contravene subsection (1) or (2) or impede or prevent a person from refusing to contravene subsection (1) or (2).

(5) No trade union or officer or representative of a trade union shall, in any manner, discipline a person because that person does not contravene subsection (1) or (2).

Who does (4) include? Beyond unions and the workers themselves, it’d affect newspaper columnists, bloggers, or, you know, just you, talking to your friend in the public service. I don’t know if it’ll actually applied and enforced that way, prosecutions requiring the minister to sign off, but it’s there, and it’s going to scare some people away from speaking their mind, and that’s enough.

Many people won’t notice this at all because they just don’t pay attention to things and it won’t directly affect them. Many will notice it but reason it has nothing to do with them because, why, they’d never tell anyone to break the law. Many people don’t like unions anyway, so “fuck ’em.” See, it’s not so bad right now, huh?

They’re already in “not so bad” territory. You can see why someone might think, say, that advising someone to murder someone should be against the law. Don’t have to agree with it, but inciting or encouraging violence is at least one of those cases where people might question absolutism.

So what makes the Progressive Conservatives’ law so insidious is that they can appeal to situations like this in order to argue that advising someone to break the law be against the law itself.

It’s cowshit because even if you accept that there are exemptions with freedom of expression there’s a huge difference between a VLT machine serviceperson striking and the same person committing murder—whether at your advice or not—and it shouldn’t take me, some fresh out of university 26-year-old or anyone else to state the obvious.

I know I’m not the only one who’s telling public employees to strike, and I know there are people lining up to jeer at us, dismissing us as would-be internet warriors who think we’re so cool and edgy for “breaking the law” on our laptops. Yeah okay I admit it’s basically the wet dream of any serious writer to be presented with the threat of censorship like their words are so scary they have to be outlawed, and yeah, the chance that I’ll actually be prosecuted for this is minimal considering the number of other people who will do it, the chance that a court will knock this law down anyway, and my low level of influence, but, still, it’s the principle.

And I’d rather look like an overreacting idiot now and argue a principle that I believe in than live in a society ten years after nobody bothered.

Beyond the fundamental right we have to say what we want, some laws should be broken. Alcohol prohibition would never had ended had people obeyed the law, and marijuana prohibition will not be lifted so long as people don’t smoke pot. It’s nice to think we live in a society where the law becomes just over time merely because the system works, people follow the rules and engage rationally with issues, struggling to balance freedom and restrictions, but in reality, any change is faced by enormous one-way inertia. You can tighten rules, you can add rules—actions seen as incremental improvements—but you have a hard time loosening or removing them. I mean, that would be admitting we were wrong—horror. At least if a new party comes into power they can make a change based on the justification that somebody else was wrong, but this is ‘berta, and we’ve got more than forty years of Tory rule behind us and at least a couple more ahead.

Pot won’t be legalized by politicians suddenly realizing that science is a thing, but because they’ll note that acceptance of pot smoking has reached a point where not only can they accept legalization personally, but can be public about it. This acceptance, by and large, isn’t going to be because anybody read a scientific paper. It’s going come from people trying it themselves, or knowing others who do, suggesting to others that they try it, and seeing no substantial harm come of it.

Breaking an unjust law can be an important part of fighting it. But break it or obey it, freedom of expression means that at least the debate about what the right thing to do is fully allowed.

Nobody should ever be made to feel that they, by law, cannot advocate a person does what they believe to be the right thing, because the right thing and the law don’t always match up. See history.

What a government’s saying when they try to outlaw words is that they have the right ones, and you’re a criminal if you have the wrong ones. You will say what the government wants you to or else. When a public worker comes to you for advice on whether to strike, you behave and say “no” like a good citizen, or you will be fined.

Any obvious violation of a charter right should be shut down by the courts. Probably, this will be. But look, we can’t rely on the courts forever. If people who think freedom of expression should be restricted in these ways are able to get into power, and are able to stay in power, and are able to spread their influence, it is only a matter of time before enough of these people are in power to enact changes such that the courts cannot protect us.

Even if it’s struck down, they can point to the virtue of it having passed the democratic process to promote reform. They can try to make what they want allowable. Regardless of anything that happens from here, one group of people, elected in a fair, democratic election in this province, have chipped at the marble column of freedom of expression. We can pick up the chip and glue it back in, but it will take time, and the fact that we have to should frighten us.

There are two options here. If assume that the bill is precisely as the PCs want it to be, then we have a party in power that wants to control what you can say.

Giving some generous benefits of the doubt, the other option is that someone, somewhere, writing this law, accidentally went too far with the speech stuff. Unfortunately, the predominant style of governance that the country’s conservative parties seem to be employing is the “bill is perfect ram it through hell to the opposition” method which requires that they never admit nor fix mistakes voluntarily, even if they discover them and admit them internally. Why, that’d shake confidence in the strong stable majority.

The first option is outright malicious and shows contempt for people. The second is just as bad. I can’t pick which is worse because every time I come up with a reason why the first one is, the second one punches it in the face.

Regardless of how it happened, it did happen. And one cabinet shuffle later, Dave Hancock, the PC MLA who put forward Bill 45 (46 having Doug Horner) is now Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education.

The guy who does not understand freedom of expression has been put in charge of Alberta’s universities. Oh, and he’s Deputy Premier too, because this is apparently how we roll in ‘berta.

It’s easy to sit back, for whatever reason, and assume that everything will work itself out. That somebody else will deal with the problem.

My reason for being tempted against saying anything is the worry that coming out against it could affect how people view anything else I may write on the bills, or on labour at all, and who will and will not agree to be interviewed. I’ve stuck hard to 4(4) for this reason. But who will and will not agree to be interviewed is directly linked to these bills. If it’s a crime to threaten a strike, to advocate to the public service that there be a strike, and somebody thinks there should be a strike, and they’re sufficiently intimidated by this law, then I don’t get them speaking their mind to me, and we only hear real opinions from those who denounce the idea of a strike. Better to offend a politician doing a background check on me after an interview request than not advocate for the right of others I may contact to speak freely.

One side of the debate bullying the other into silence is not how we do things. Fundamentally bad decisions in a democracy plus silence equals, generally, fundamental bad. Enough bad legislation with enough time with enough silence and too little dissent is how we fail. They have bad legislation, they have time, and now they’re working on legislating silence. I’d rather take the risk, break the law, and be one of the people who give an unequivocal no to this than shut up and follow the rules.

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