Les Leyne: Labour law is radically moderate

Les Leyne mugshot genericThe pendulum-swing analogy usually used to describe B.C. labour law rewrites didn’t apply this week. Instead, Labour Minister Harry Bains took a radical, disconcerting new approach — moderation.

The package he introduced is tilted in favour of workers, but the slant isn’t as extreme as it might have been. It shouldn’t leave the management side in too much of a sulk.

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The former millworker and woodworkers union agent introduced two bills covering employment standards and the Labour Code that tackle an assortment of issues. They look to be practical changes, rather than the ideological declarations that marked previous efforts by various governments to tilt the field in favour of unions or management.

Overall, the pendulum moves closer to the middle. One indicator of that is the muted reaction from the B.C. Liberal caucus. They aren’t yet rushing to the ramparts or urging business groups to start planning rallies.

There will be lots of clause-by-clause debate and some specific objections. But it wouldn’t be a big surprise if they voted for the bills.

It wasn’t all Bains’ doing. The package was constrained by the NDP minority, given that the Greens served notice they would not support one idea that’s often a keystone issue when labour law comes up for argument.

The idea of changing the current secret ballot on union certification to an easier process of just signing an assent form usually galvanizes everyone. B.C. has flipped four times over the past 35 years and the changes usually lock union and management into their traditional positions.

Premier John Horgan favoured making the change, and the big unions that support the NDP were pushing for it. But the Greens said no. So the NDP didn’t have the votes.

They also didn’t have the mandate from a study panel that reviewed the labour landscape. It recommended the status quo. So the idea fell off the table and an overblown political argument was avoided.

The government did organized labour a small favour as a makeup — it shortened the time between application and a vote, when certification hangs in the balance and companies sometimes mount counterarguments.

What’s still in play is an assortment of detailed changes. Overall, they favour unions. But more importantly, they favour the people in the middle of the union-management equation — the workers, unionized or otherwise.

The first adjustments were in an employment-standards amendment. They increase the general minimum age in the workforce to 16 from 12, with some special exemptions. Expect objections from family-owned businesses and farmers, but the changes are defensible.

There’s a new clearer standard on unpaid leave for employees dealing with family critical illness, and a new category of unpaid leave for employees experiencing domestic violence.

Other changes beef up the Employment Standards branch. That understaffed outfit also got an upgrade last year when temporary-foreign-worker protection was enhanced.

Whatever the B.C. Federation of Labour thinks about losing the argument over ending the secret ballot, its ranking officials showed up Monday to support the employment standards changes.

The Labour Code changes came the next day and they appear designed to end more arguments than they will start.

There’s another round of relatively small adjustments in favour of workers. With the secret-ballot headliner absent, the biggest news is on succession rights.

Lower-wage support workers have been getting shorted for years when contracts for those services change hands.

The previous B.C. Liberal government set the stage for that practice when it reorganized service delivery. It lost the epic court battle that followed overwhelmingly.

The new amendment stamps out the wage-and-benefit cuts that often accompany contract-flipping. It’s designed to protect the wages of thousands, many of them women. Liberals don’t want to be reminded of their role in that, so they’re unlikely to contest it.

The other notable change is that education will no longer be deemed an essential service. That’s not as big a deal as it appears. The designation didn’t stop any strikes. It just created more court arguments about itemizing what’s essential, which prolonged the arguments.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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