Editorial: Coercing union membership goes too far

The B.C. government has announced it will require employees working on any publicly funded construction project to join a union. The decision generated controversy. Why should workers be compelled to join a union if they have no wish to do so?

However, there is a different aspect that requires examination. The province has set up an Allied Infrastructure and Related Construction Council, which will act on behalf of 19 unions favoured by the government. Employees who don’t join one of these unions will have 30 days to do so or leave their jobs.

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But is this strictly legal? The B.C. Labour Relations Board has laid out rules pertaining to the formation and dissolution of unions.

First, a union can only be certified if, among other requirements, it has the support of at least 45 per cent of prospective members. And that support must be gained by secret ballot. That is to say it cannot be compelled.

But how is that condition to be met here, when outright coercion is employed? Not only is there no secret ballot, there is no ballot at all. The only option workers have is join or quit.

Second, the LRB makes it clear that a union cannot continue in existence if it falls under the control of its employer. Specifically, the LRB has ruled: “If the board finds that the organization is … employer-dominated … it cannot certify the organization.”

This is a difficult issue to probe. What exactly does “employer-dominated” mean?

Nevertheless, by any standard, those 19 unions have an uncomfortably close relationship with their employer, namely government.

For a start, they rely on the province to compel membership in their unions. That is no small matter.

In effect, the government is acting as a recruiting arm for those labour groups. If this doesn’t meet the technical definition of employer domination, it comes close.

And that raises another concern. One of the safeguards union members possess is the right to vote for decertification if they are unhappy with their leadership.

But it appears that right has been annulled here.

Then again, one of the fundamental duties of a union is to negotiate appropriate pay and benefits for its members. That might mean putting pressure on the employer.

But is that a realistic option? Under the new arrangement, these unions are guaranteed a significant contribution to their coffers. That will come from the dues all those new members will be forced to pay.

But it was the employer who brought this about. In effect, the government is bankrolling the unions.

Is it reasonable to suppose that, under such circumstances, union negotiators will fight their employer quite as hard for higher wages? Isn’t there a conflict of interest?

And finally, the elephant in the room. There is already considerable opposition to various construction projects across the province.

The B.C. government is in court trying to halt the Trans Mountain Pipeline. The West Moberly First Nation is seeking a court injunction to stop work on B.C. Hydro’s Site C dam. They claim their treaty rights have been infringed.

And now the government is telling companies that if they want to work on a public construction project here, they have to unionize their workforce.

The issue comes down to one of balance. The previous B.C. Liberal government was more than friendly to the corporate sector, and important social issues were neglected in the process. Some correction was certainly called for.

But coercing union membership is a step too far. The government is perilously close to telling investors that when it comes to publicly funded construction sites, B.C. is a closed shop.

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