British Columbia’s NDP government is making it easier for workers to form a union.
Labour Relations Code changes that Labour Minister Harry Bains introduced in the legislature Wednesday include eliminating the requirement for a secret ballot vote when at least 55 per cent of employees in a workplace have signed cards indicating they wish to join a union.
Bains said in the legislature the changes “further our progress on government’s commitment that every worker has a right to join a union and bargain for fair working conditions.” The bill will ensure workers can exercise their right to choose to have union representation without interference from their employer, he said.
Bains and the government had wanted to make the change three years ago, but didn’t have enough votes in the legislature at the time to do so without the support of BC Green MLAs, who opposed the move.
“Workers in B.C. deserve to have a voice and choice to bargain without barriers,” Bains told reporters. “There is clear evidence the current system fails to prevent employer interference and allows unfair labour practices to continue.”
Under the existing system, when 45 per cent of workers sign cards saying they want to join a union it triggers a secret ballot vote. According to Bains and union officials there is often interference by employers in the days ahead of that vote.
With the new rules, there will still be a secret ballot vote if between 45 and 55 per cent of employees in a workplace sign union membership cards, but the certification will be automatic if at least 55 per cent sign cards.
The BC Federation of Labour released a statement welcoming the change.
“Right now, B.C. is at the back of the pack in Canada, with labour laws that create unnecessary barriers to organizing,” said BC Federation of Labour president Laird Cronk. “This change will remove those barriers and make it achievable for workers to join together and negotiate fair working conditions in their workplace.”
The federal government, three provinces and the territories all use similar “single-step” processes and they work well, Cronk said. “This is the recognition of a fundamental right for workers.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear there are gaps in workplace protection, particularly for the lowest-paid and most vulnerable workers, he said. “Single-step certification allows workers to organize and close those gaps. As our province recovers from the pandemic, this is an opportunity to rebuild a fairer economy that works for everyone.”
The change to a single-step process will help bring back protected, fair-paying jobs, said Izzy Adachi, a director-at-large of the Worker Solidarity Network who participated in the news conference with Bains.
Adachi helped organize a union at a Starbucks coffee shop in Victoria and said the company made unsuccessful efforts to discourage a yes vote in 2020 after 90 per cent of workers had signed union cards.
“This change is a win for workers — frontline workers, essential workers, minimum wage and service workers — and a win for the communities they serve,” Adachi said.
A three-person panel that reviewed the Labour Relations Code for Bains in 2018 recommended against moving to a single-step certification process.
“In the majority’s view, notwithstanding the legitimate concerns relating to the secret ballot vote, it is the most consistent with our democratic norms, protects the fundamental right of freedom of association and choice, and is preferred,” they wrote.
The report included a dissenting view from one of the panel members and stressed that there needed to be “sufficient measures to ensure the exercise of employee choice is fully protected and fully remediated in the event of unlawful interference.”
Bains said the government made changes in 2019 that the panel recommended as ways to reduce employer interference, but that there have still been frequent examples of workers getting fired or threatened with layoffs for supporting union certification efforts.
BC Liberal labour critic Greg Kyllo called the move “shameful and self-serving” and noted it went against the expert panel’s recommendations.
“The government is moving to deprive workers of a fundamental democratic right,” his statement said. "The only ones that appear to benefit from this decision are NDP-aligned unions who have seen their membership decline in the last few decades. Seventy per cent of B.C. workers have chosen not to be represented by a union."
The province has switched between the two systems for certification several times and the current two-step system has been used since 2001.
The bill introduced Wednesday also lets workers in the construction sector change their union representation in each year of their collective agreement. The current rules force them to wait as long as three years before making a change in representation.