British Columbia Labour Minister Harry Bains said changes he announced Tuesday to the Labour Relations Code are a step forward, though they are short of what the NDP would have done if it didn’t have to rely on Green Party support.
“The changes are needed, necessary and overdue,” Bains said, noting it was the first review since 1992 of the laws governing the relationship between organized labour and management. “The laws were outdated.”
Key changes included extending successorship rights so that workers in more sectors, including food services, are protected from contract flipping.
However it kept the requirement to hold a secret ballot vote as part of union certification, something Bains said he would have preferred to do away with but could not since Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver had made clear his party wouldn’t support that change.
Bains said he would have preferred a one-step process where a union would be certified if enough workers signed cards saying they wanted to unionize. It’s tough for workers who fear repercussions from their employers to have open discussions about unionizing, Bains said. “In workplaces there’s no freedom of speech when they want to join a union.”
Green Leader Weaver said the government’s approach was balanced and that he was glad the minister had followed the recommendations from the three-person panel it had appointed to review the Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Code. In August the panel submitted a 154-page report to Bains that made 29 wide-ranging recommendations.
“His decision clearly was based on our input. That’s how good governance happens,” Weaver said. “What we see before us is something we can support because it reflects our views.”
He said shortening the time frame for the secret ballot made sense. “It ensures workers are protected as they exercise their choice,” he said.
“I recognize not everyone will like everything in the legislation, but we believe the amendments are necessary adjustments to existing law,” he said. “What continues to be missing from the conversation is a focus on how we can adapt our labour laws to support grappling with the changing nature of work.”
Opposition labour critic John Martin said the BC Liberals will have questions about the details as the legislation goes through debate, but he wasn’t critical of the bill’s overall direction. “I know that Mr. Weaver and his colleagues were apparently unprepared to accept the removal of the secret ballot. I think it’s a good day all around for workers and for democracy.”
The BC Federation of Labour had in recent weeks been pressing the Greens to support moving to a one-step process.
“There’s no need for the delay, there’s no need for the second vote, because putting your name on a card is a vote, so we would have preferred to have seen it that way,” BC Fed president Laird Cronk said Tuesday.
Despite the disappointment, he said, the government had made positive changes, including shortening the length of time between workers signing cards and the vote being held.
“What we have is still positive change to the labour code,” Cronk said. “We have a government that actually consulted before they made changes to the labour code and the Employment Standards Act. That’s refreshing.”
Job security for contracted food workers
Cronk also said the BC Fed was happy with the changes the government made around successorship rights.
Under the successorship change, when an organization such as Rogers Arena or Vancouver airport changes food service contractors, the current workers will keep their jobs under their existing collective agreement.
The new protection also covers building cleaning or janitorial services, security services, bus transportation services, and non-clinical services in the health-care sector.
During the consultation period Iglika Ivanova, senior economist in the B.C. Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, had argued for extending successorship rights to all sectors where there is contracting out.
The sectors included in the legislation were those that are most at risk of contract flipping, Bains said. “In recent years it has become common practice for service contracts to be taken over by a new service provider, but they don’t honour the collective agreement that is in place. As a result current employees lose their job or are forced to accept lower pay and benefits for the same work.”
Many workers in that position told their stories during the consultation, he said, adding that they were mostly women and often from minorities. He mentioned one worker who lived through four such contract flips and said most people would agree the situation wasn’t fair.
The amendments also give the Labour Relations Board more discretion to impose union certification if they believe an employer has interfered with the certification process. Employers will be allowed to exercise their rights to free speech, but not conduct an anti-union campaign.
The legislation changes the rules around raids by restricting the periods where one union may try to sign up members who already belong to another union.
‘Essential services’ redefined
The new law also says educational programs will no longer be considered “essential services” so that teachers will have the right to strike unless there’s a “clear and imminent threat to the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population.”
Jennifer Whiteside, the secretary-business manager for the Hospital Employees’ Union, said the amendments are comprehensive and restore balance. “This is a very important day for us.”
A spokesperson for Unite Here Local 40, Michelle Travis, said the successorship provisions were needed. Workers who Unite Here represents include people in food services at Vancouver airport and various public institutions.
“We think this is tremendous news for contracted food service workers and other contracted workers in B.C.,” Travis said. “This will mean more stability for working people, and particularly for women who disproportionately work in these jobs.” The change will make a difference for thousands of workers in the province, she said.
BC Building Trades executive director Tom Sigurdson was generally pleased with the government making overdue changes, but was “extremely disappointed” it had decided to keep the secret ballot. “Most jurisdictions in Canada have a card-based certification system and so it’s disheartening that B.C. has decided to remain behind the times and continue with an Orwellian-styled double-vote process whose only goal is to limit employee choice,” he said in a prepared statement.
Stephen Hunt, the United Steelworkers District 3 director, said he would have liked forestry to be included in the successorship provisions, but understood why they weren’t.
In general he welcomed the changes the government is making to the labour code. “It just feels good,” he said. “Not out of balance, it’s pretty tame stuff. But it undoes a lot of damage.”