Jun 6, 2014

Tories set to revoke labour law, workers’ rights

Tories set to revoke labour law, workers’ rights 

Government is attacking its own good labour legislation, and it makes no sense. Card-check certification is effective, democratic, and a basic right that must be protected.

Unions led the drive to save the Marine Rescue Centre in St. John's, which the federal government shut down in May 2012. Photo courtesy Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour.

Well, the rebound is over it seems. Frank Coleman doesn’t take office for another few weeks but already the governing Progressive Conservatives are slipping back into their implosion-era political blunders. It’s Blunderdale Redux; or perhaps more presciently, Cole-gate.

Either way, this time it’s Dan Crummell, Minister Responsible for the Labour Relations Agency, who’s point man on scandal. He introduced a truly bizarre U-turn on labour legislation, proposing some amendments to the (already recently amended) Labour Relations Act which, thanks to their majority, and barring any last-minute dose of enlightenment, will likely be passed in the near future. The amendments send two strong messages: first, that this provincial government is dangerously under the influence of corporate cronyism; second, that all its recent commitments to ‘open government’ and public accountability were hollow words.

Bad policy will lead to bad outcomes

The amendments serve one basic function: they make it harder to form a union. The basic approach to forming unions in North America, standardized in the post-World War II period, was that a union will be formed if a majority of workers in a workplace demand one. One of the methods of demanding a union, which has been used in various workplaces and jurisdictions since the 1930s, has been by signing cards. Under this method, if a majority of workers sign cards asking for a union, the union will automatically be recognized. It’s democracy, pure and simple. The purpose of signing cards—instead of scheduling a vote—is that there is a strong body of evidence demonstrating that many employers will intimidate their employees if they think they’re going to form a union. Threats, coercion, bribes from employers are all heftily documented in reams of labour relations research. Signing cards protects employees from their powerful employers. And it’s democratic: a strong majority of cards signed is the vote.

In some cases, there are a lot of cards, but it’s a questionable majority. In these exceptional cases, sometimes a second vote would be held, often supervised by government (sort of like a run-off vote). It’s an undesirable option because it does precisely what the card-signing was designed to avoid — it creates a situation where employers can draw on their hefty money and power to try to shape the outcomes and cajole or coerce workers into voting against the union.

When Canadian labour relations law developed in the post-World War II period, initially every province had an automatic card-check unionization process. It was the norm. And then business and employer organizations started pressuring governments to do away with them, and to make it tougher for workers to form a union. In this province, that happened in 1994. Since then, workers have had to go through a double hurdle to form a union: first sign cards, and then have a mandatory vote. Multiple reviews and consultations over the years recommended changing that. Most recently, there was a wide-ranging public consultation as part of a revision of the Labour Relations Act two years ago. As an outcome of that public consultation, the government implemented automatic card-check certification, bringing this province into line with many jurisdictions across North America (including Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Quebec). This was a good move — not only good labour policy, but it reflected democratic accountability in that it was the outcome of public consultations surrounding revision to the Act.

Big business immediately cried foul — they wanted their double hurdle back. They made bogus claims that workers were losing a democratic right to a vote. Nonsense. When a majority signs cards, that is a democratic process, and one that keeps workers safe from employers who might try to interfere with a vote or target them with other types of reprisal. So long as at least 65 per cent of workers sign cards—a strong majority—no divisive, costly, second vote is needed. This was a responsible, sensible policy.

But something must have happened in dark corners quite recently, because government has suddenly tossed aside the very good legislation it brought in following public consultation, and is hastily trying to do what the big business community has been pressuring them to do: get rid of automatic card-check certification. What secret power does the business community have that they can persuade government to toss aside the outcome of public, accountable consultation and suddenly rewrite labour legislation in a hasty, ad hoc and irresponsible way? It’s a question worth asking.

Why the amendments are bad

The amendments will make it harder to form a union and will likely increase tension and division within workplaces. This actually increases costs to employers, so it makes no sense for them to support it. Allowing employers the benefit of that extra vote—even when a clear majority of workers have signed cards—is inviting employers to wade in with all the tools of their insidious anti-union campaigns, dividing workers and pitting them against each other, creating tension in the workplace, and ultimately throwing the smooth functioning of the workplace into chaos. Stopping unions has turned into a multi-million dollar industry in North America, an industry geared purely toward depriving workers of their democratic rights.

And it is depriving them of their rights. Card-signing is a democratic process that protects employees from employer reprisals. When card-signing produces a majority, requiring a second vote is akin to saying, “What? The Liberals won the provincial election? Well, let’s have a second election just to make sure.”

To be honest, many good employers actually prefer there to be unions in the workplace. Unions help to stabilize workplaces and ensure the fair and equitable treatment of workers. Good (and often large-scale) employers know this, which is why they are rarely the ones opposing unions (even if they might fight them in bargaining and during strikes). It’s often the more immature and ideologically-driven smaller and local employers who get it into their heads that they need to stop unions. This is, presumably, what we’re seeing when it comes to the local employers supporting these poorly crafted amendments. Automatic card-check certification is supported by a wide range of experts, from this list of noted economists encouraging the US government to adopt it, to the New York Times.

The outcome, if the amendments are passed, will not help the provincial economy and workforce in any way. In fact, it will do the opposite — they will increase labour tension and strife, and they will only further exacerbate the sort of inequalities that we already see growing in communities across our province.

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