The British Columbia government is within weeks of introducing legislation aimed at supporting and protecting workers, and organized labour is making sure Green Party MLAs understand what’s at stake.
“This is very, very, very important for working people,” said Laird Cronk, the president of the BC Federation of Labour, which represents some 500,000 union members through its affiliates.
Cronk said the coming legislation will be the first opportunity to improve the province’s Employment Standards Act and Labour Relations Code in 20 years.
While the BC Fed is also talking to NDP MLAs about what should be in the legislation, the Green votes are critical. Without their support, the legislation will be defeated in the legislature, where the NDP minority government relies on Green support.
“We want to make sure that the Green Party representatives understand how important this is to working people and the labour movement and understand the details,” Cronk said.
Cronk recently wrote Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver a letter about the changes the BC Fed thinks are needed, and a union campaign website makes it easy to send email messages to the three Green MLAs as well as Labour Minister Harry Bains.
Weaver said his caucus is waiting to see the legislation before it will provide details of its position.
Weaver said the Greens have offered their views on what should be in the legislation to the government. The government can either bring forward legislation that reflects those views, or table legislation that the Greens would amend, he said.
“Obviously our preference is for the government to table legislation that they want and for us to table the amendments that we want to make the legislation that they want palatable to us. That would be the ideal way forward,” he said.
Making it easier to unionize
Last year the government appointed a three-person panel to review the labour code. In August the panel submitted a 154-page report to Bains that made 29 wide-ranging recommendations.
The BC Fed thinks the recommendations fall short in some areas. For example, it would like measures to protect workers when contracts change hands extended to more sectors than the panel recommended.
And it doesn’t think a secret ballot vote should be necessary if more than 55 per cent of employees in a workplace sign cards saying they want to join a union.
Weaver said he and the other Greens support the recommendations in the committee’s report. “I suspect that the BC Federation would like the BC NDP to go further than that and so, I don’t know why, is sending us emails.”
The Green Party is open to looking at whether sectors other than those named in the report should have successorship rights, he said. “We are not zealots or ideologues. We are focused on good public policy and we’re focusing on doing what’s right and fair.”
Weaver also said the Greens support retaining the secret ballot for workers considering joining a union, but would like votes to be held more quickly and would consider exceptions to the requirement in some sectors, as in Ontario.
The Green approach accepts that labour laws need to be improved, Weaver said. “Honestly I think it’s a perfectly reasonable middle of the road. The last thing B.C. needs is yet another policy lurch on labour code from one extreme to the other.”
The BC Fed is an important stakeholder, but is one among many, he said. “The BC Federation obviously put their interest first and foremost, and, frankly, historically the NDP have put their interest first and foremost ahead of other British Columbians, and our role is to ensure we get good public policy that corrects some of the things that have existed a long time but doesn’t swing the pendulum the other way.”
Without the Greens allowing the NDP to form government, none of the changes would be happening, Weaver said. “It doesn’t behoove their interest well to try to turn on us because we’re the reason why the NDP is able to change the labour code.”
Cronk said Weaver has previously said publicly that he thinks workers deserve to have a secret ballot on whether or not they join a union.
“That sounds good in a vacuum,” Cronk said. “But in order to achieve that secret ballot vote they endure often fear and intimidation and a power imbalance over a period of time in the workplace. I’m not sure he understands that and we want to make sure he understands what that means.”
Cronk said six other Canadian jurisdictions, including the federal government, allow certification without a vote if enough members sign union cards.
In B.C., the votes are supposed to happen within 10 days, but it often takes longer, he said.
“During that 10-day period, what really happens is those workers become susceptible, time and time again we’ve seen evidence of this, become susceptible to the imbalance of power in the workplace,” Cronk said. Some employers will threaten to close and put everyone out of work or otherwise intimidate workers, he said.
“When it comes to that vote 10 days later, sometimes they are often so taken to task by their employer with these unfair labour practices that they’re too afraid to vote in favour or even show up for the vote,” he said. “You should be free of intimidation and fear when you want to join a union. It is a charter right.”
Employers argue that workers feel pressure to sign a union card, and have the right to a secret ballot on unionization.
Restoring a one-step process helps people who want to join a union, Cronk said.
“Some may try to frame it as the unions wanting something. This is actually unions standing up for all workers and saying those who don’t have those same abilities to join a union and bargain collectively, which is their charter right, should have access to it and enough of this second-step process that really interferes with that.”
The BC Fed would also like the government to change the law that allows children as young as 12 to work anywhere, including in heavy construction. They would like the age raised to 16, Cronk said.
It wants stronger provisions to ensure workers are paid the wages they are owed, paid leave for workers who face “intimate, personal or relationship violence” and the extension of the Employment Standards Act so it covers all workers, including people who work on farms.
The Employment Standards Act should also apply to all workers, including those in a union, Cronk said. The BC Liberals changed the law to exempt unionized workers from the basic protections under the act. “The floor should be the floor should be the floor,” he said.
This is the first opportunity in almost two decades to have a progressive government open the province’s labour laws, Cronk said. “This is a very important opportunity to rebalance the labour code and rebalance employment standards. The BC Liberals made significant changes to both of those statutes and we’d like to see both of them come back into balance.”
Bains said workplaces have changed significantly since the province’s labour laws were last updated and the government has consulted widely on what improvements are needed.
Improving protections and supports for workers is a shared priority between the Greens and the government, Bains said in a prepared statement.
“The ministry has engaged with the Greens on their perspectives and more will be done before the Labour Relations Code and Employment Standards bills are tabled,” he said.
“We are hopeful that they will support, at minimum, the majority of both bills in principle given our shared perspective on the importance of both the Labour Relations Code and Employment Standards needing an update to reflect today’s world of work and the importance of fair and balanced labour laws.”
Introduction of the legislation is expected shortly after the legislature resumes sitting April 29.