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BC Government and Its Lawyers Head Toward Unionization Showdown

Lawyers threaten a Charter challenge and job action.

Zak Vescera 12 May

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 are threatening to sue it over a new law that would remove their right to choose their own union.

Bill 5 became law on Thursday after months of fighting between the government and the BC Government Lawyers Association, which applied last year to be recognized as an independent union representing about 300 members.

The legislation lifts a ban on unionization for the lawyers, who advise government on new laws and represent it in civil court.

But it forces them to join the Professional Employees Association, an existing union, rather than establishing a new union

The government has argued the law is part of longstanding practices to streamline negotiations by reducing the number of unions bargaining with the government. But it’s been criticized by the labour movement.

Gareth Morley, the association’s president, argues the bill was unfairly used to quash their certification application to the Labour Relations Board.

He says the association intends to challenge it in court, arguing it violated their Charter rights to pursue collective bargaining.

“If the bill passes, we have to challenge it as unconstitutional,” Morley said in an interview on Wednesday.

He also said his members would begin a “work to rule” campaign by refusing overtime. He said members also would not rule out other job action.

“The government says we don’t have a right to strike. We say we do. That’s a legal issue that’s disputed between the parties,” Morley said.

In a written statement from the Finance Ministry, a spokesperson said ministries were prepared for job action.

“We expect that in the event of an illegal job action, the main service impact would involve a delay in providing legal advice to a ministry, however, the legal branch of every ministry has a contingency plan in place,” the statement said.

The dispute dates back to a decades-old law.

In 1973, the NDP government passed the Public Service Labour Relations Act, a bill defining how the province bargains with its employees.

The bill set out a framework for how the government would collectively bargain with its employees.

It gave them a right to strike. But it also mandated the government would only bargain with three unions: the BC General Employees’ Union, the Professional Employees Association and the BC Nurses’ Union.

The government worried that having too many unions representing small groups of employees would ratchet up the risk of labour instability and lead to disruptive strikes. If one small group of union workers picketed a government building, other union workers might refuse to cross that picket line, impeding public services.

The bill also said certain workers couldn’t join a union, including lawyers.

In 1992, a group of those lawyers formed the BCGLA with the goal of one day becoming their own union. Various efforts failed.

But last year the association applied to the BC Labour Relations Board to form their own union, citing a different piece of legislation.

Morley said the lawyers want their own union because of the specific circumstances of their profession and to guarantee protection against any form of pressure from government.

But months later, as the two parties were debating the issue at the labour board, the B.C. government introduced Bill 5.

The law amends the Public Service Labour Relations Act so that lawyers are now allowed to join a union. But in practice it means the union they join must be the Professional Employees Association.

The PEA, which represents a registered professionals working for the government, faces the possibility of representing 300 new members who had not chosen the union.

“We’re certainly cognizant that this isn’t the result the BCGLA and their members wanted,” PEA president Scott McCannell said today.

McCannell said the Professional Employees Association will now begin talks with the government to see how the lawyers fit into their existing collective agreement.

McCannell said he recognizes the lawyers will still fight to form their own union but says the PEA will do their “level best” to represent them in the meantime.

He says the PEA supports the BCGLA’s bid to become its own union.

The BC Federation of Labour has also backed the BCGLA’s right to form its own union. So has the BCGEU.

The bill, first introduced in February, was rapidly passed into law in the legislature this month.

During debate, the pro-union NDP government faced accusations of being anti-labour from the BC United party, which fought constantly with organized labour during its 16 years in power as the BC Liberals.

“It's kind of like the twilight zone in here right now, frankly,” Green Party MLA Adam Olsen said in debate last week.

“For the record, let's outline what's happening here,” Olsen later said. “The B.C. government lawyers want to form their own union, as is their right. The BC NDP government is forcing them into a union that they didn't pick. That very union, the Professional Employees Association, doesn't want the government lawyers in their union against their wishes and stands with them in their right to pick their own union.”

Bill 5 was not introduced by Labour Minister Harry Bains but by Finance Minister Katrine Conroy. Bains did not rise to defend the bill.

In her remarks, Conroy argued Bill 5 gave the lawyers’ association a number of the things it said it wanted: the right to bargain for wages, protection from dismissal and the ability to go on strike.

The only NDP MLA besides Conroy who spoke to it was George Heyman, minister of environment and a former president of the BCGEU.

Heyman argued the bill fit within a longstanding practice of preventing a proliferation of bargaining units in the public sector.

“You can't pick and choose that you're going to give one group the ability to organize a separate union outside of the Public Service Labour Relations Act, but somehow deny it to other groups,” Heyman said.

Morley, though, argues it is not likely there will be a proliferation of bargaining units just because his association becomes a union.

“I think that all parties ought to be committed to the principal that workers choose unions, not employers. But I think it’s especially the case for the NDP,” Morley said.  [Tyee]

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