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BC’s Negotiations with Government Lawyers Collapse

‘We’re not going to agree to a bill that takes away the ability of our members to decide what union they want to apply to.’

Zak Vescera 7 Mar 2023TheTyee.ca

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Lawyers working for the B.C. government say they’re willing to strike to win the right to form their own union after negotiations with the province broke down last week.

BC Government Lawyers Association president Gareth Morley said two weeks of private talks couldn’t end the impasse between lawyers, who want to form their own union, and the government, which wants most of the association’s members to join an existing union.

The association’s 350 lawyers, who advise government on new laws and represent it in civil court, had already voted overwhelmingly in favour of job action last month.

That happened after the B.C. government introduced Bill 5, which Morley says would interfere with the association’s ongoing application to the BC Labour Relations Board to become recognized as a union.

Morley says he’s now consulting with members on job action, which the B.C. government has previously argued would be illegal as the lawyers are not yet unionized.

“We want to talk to the government, but we’re not going to agree to a bill that takes away the ability of our members to decide what union they want to apply to, or if they want to apply at all,” Morley said.

The BC Public Service Agency, charged with dealing with employees, said only that it is considering its next steps.

Morley’s association has long sought union status for its members, who have been excluded from joining a union under B.C. law. They applied to the Labour Relations Board for union status in November.

The B.C. government has not denied the workers have a right to organize but has argued it would be more appropriate for them to join the Professional Employees Association, which represents other certified government workers like agrologists and some staff lawyers for Legal Aid BC.

Last month government introduced legislation that granted most of the association’s lawyers the right to unionize, but steered them to the Professional Employees Association. Those lawyers never applied to the association, nor has that union sought to organize them.

The BC Federation of Labour said the government was interfering with the independent labour process.

BC Federation of Labour president Sussanne Skidmore and secretary-treasurer Hermender Kailley said the legislation would effectively “circumvent” the lawyers’ application to the Labour Relations Board, an independent body that certifies trade unions in B.C.

“The BC Federation of Labour is disappointed that government has chosen this path instead of letting the Labour Relations Board complete its work. It is important to protect the rights of working people to join or form a union of their choosing,” the two said in a prepared statement at that time.

The government has previously argued that Bill 5 wouldn’t interfere with the Labour Relations Board process. Finance Minister Katrine Conroy said the bill clears the way for the lawyers to join a union under existing law.

But Morley says his members have unique needs and should be able to bargain in their own union, like Crown prosecutors, who have had their own union for more than 20 years.

Last month, the association and the government agreed to a media blackout while they negotiated changes to the legislation. The government agreed to pause progress on Bill 5 and the association did the same with its certification application.

Morley said the association has now abandoned the negotiations and restarted its efforts to be certified.

He said he agreed to not discuss the negotiations, but the association wouldn’t return to talks with the government if it passed the bill.

The association does not have union standing, meaning any job action would likely be illegal. But Morley argues they could assert a right to strike for recognition of their union because they haven’t been given a fair chance to choose their own union.

The Professional Employees Association has previously said it supports the lawyers’ association application to form its own union.  [Tyee]

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