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BC Politics

How NDP and Greens Could Unite to Improve Workers’ Lives

Divisions on union certification are already clear. But don’t assume they’ll spoil the alliance.

Paul Willcocks 14 Jul

Paul Willcocks is a journalist and former publisher of newspapers, and now an editor with The Tyee.

Andrew Weaver’s vow to kill the NDP’s plan to make it easier for workers to unionize sparked quick comment about troubles ahead for the NDP-Green alliance.

The Green leader’s comments even made it into Jacobin, a U.S. socialist website and magazine, where an article warned Weaver’s “hard line” against working people is a reminder to “be wary of nominally progressive parties that lack a firm base among the poor and working class and their organizations, namely trade unions.”

That’s a leap, based on one issue. The real tests are ahead.

It is a significant issue. NDP premier John Horgan wants to reverse the BC Liberals’ 2002 changes to the certification process. Before the changes, if 55 per cent of employees signed cards saying they wanted to be represented by a union, the Labour Relations Board certified them and they went on to the task of negotiating a first contract.

The Liberals ended that and required a secret ballot vote on certification.

Horgan wants to go back to the old system. Weaver has said, “It’s simply not going to happen.”

Unions like the card signup system because workers can organize quietly, collect enough signatures and present the employer with a done deal. They don’t like the requirement for a vote because it gives companies time to persuade or pressure employees to vote no.

You can make credible arguments for either approach. Alberta’s NDP government has compromised with a system where unions are certified automatically if 65 per cent of workers sign cards, assuming that indicates strong enough support that a vote isn’t needed.

What’s much more important are the Green’s views on the role of unionization in reducing inequality and protecting employees.

Research has established that requiring votes results in significantly lower rates of unionization. And lower rates of unionization increase inequality.

The NDP believes that reversing the long decline in unionization rates — from 37.6 per cent in 1981 to 28.8 per cent in 2014 — will help restore balance in worker-employer relations, reduce inequality and help families. (Though unions aren’t mentioned once in the party’s 99-page election platform.)

So do the Greens agree? The party platform is no help in answering that question. It pledges to “Modernize labour laws to recognize new and emerging types of work relationships in the emerging economy by introducing a fairer, more responsive and more inclusive code that contributes to increased competitiveness.” That could mean anything or nothing at all, and any mention of “increased competitiveness” raises the spectre of tipping the employer-worker balance in favour of companies.

The NDP-Green agreement is clearer. It promises to “Improve fairness for workers, ensure balance in workplaces, and improve measures to protect the safety of workers.”

Achieving those goals doesn’t depend on ending the secret certification vote. In fact, some of the NDP’s concerns about the process could be addressed with Green support. The labour code now requires votes to be held within 10 days of the time the Labour Relations Board decides there are enough signed membership cards. Cutting that to three days would reduce the chance for pressure from both sides without compromising Weaver’s commitment to secret ballots.

But the issues are much broader than how unions are certified, and there’s more the NDP and Green alliance can do together to improve workers’ lives. We’ve moved from large workplaces, where unions could justify long organizing efforts, to small, disconnected units, often with temporary workers.

In 1976, 12.5 per cent of working people had part-time jobs; last year that was up to 19.2 per cent. In 1989, 8.4 per cent of Canadian workers were self-employed; that has almost doubled to 15.3 per cent as short-term contracts and part-time work replaced traditional jobs.

Those dramatic changes in the way we work have not been reflected in labour codes, pension plans, employment standards or workplace safety regulations.

The new government has a wide range of options to restore fairness. Sectoral bargaining — proposed in 1992 by an expert panel reviewing B.C. labour laws — would allow employees in a sector to bargain together. So rather than organizing one fast food restaurant and trying to negotiate a contract, a union could represent workers at different outlets, and even different companies, and negotiate a common collective agreement.

Employment Standards Act changes could guarantee equal pay for part-time workers doing the jobs as full-time employees and ensure all workers have basic benefits like paid sick leave.

And without changing a single rule, the government could end the anemic enforcement of employment laws by stepping up inspections and targeting workplaces that provide precarious employment. (An Ontario program targeted 103 employers who had previously violated employment standards. The blitz found only 28 were obeying the law.

The fundamental goal should be maintaining an equitable balance of power between employers and workers, recognizing either side will exploit any imbalance. (It’s notable that the BC Liberals did not end the ban on replacement workers during a strike despite requests from the business community, recognizing that would tip the balance too heavily.)

But that balance hasn’t been maintained. More than one-third of Canadian workers — 6.2 million people — are self-employed or working part-time. They have great difficulty in bargaining collectively and their interests are not adequately protected by employment standard legislation and practices that have not changed to reflect the new reality. Precarious work, in various forms, has replaced traditional jobs.

All of which have given employers increasing power while reducing the ability of workers to bargain effectively for wages, working conditions and security. At the same time, Employment Standards Act provisions that made sense — and could be enforced — in a traditional work environment offer no real protection to casual or contract workers.

The result has been growing inequality, more precarious work and a growing sense among working people that the game is rigged against them.

They’re right. The work environment has changed dramatically, tipping the scales in favour of employers, and governments have failed to make the changes needed to restore balance. The erosion of workers’ security and rights hasn’t been the inevitable result of economic forces; it reflects governments’ failure to fulfill their role in this critical area.

The new provincial government needs to look at every aspect of the laws and regulations that affect working life, from WorkSafeBC to the labour code to employment standards, and then make the changes needed to restore balance (without swinging the pendulum too far the other way).

The Greens’ support — or lack of support — for that kind of initiative will provide a clear answer about their commitment to fair treatment for working people.  [Tyee]

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