Comment: Labour code amendments — another shameless partisan payoff

It always sounds so lovely: all Labour Minister Harry Bains and his NDP caucus want to do with the B.C. Labour Code is “promote more stable and harmonious labour relations for employers and unions.”

Who could argue with such a sweepingly positive characterization? But unfortunately for B.C. workers, Bains’ spin is a significant stretch.

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To be sure, a few measures of the proposed legislation are laudable — for example, the provisions protecting vulnerable workers in specific sectors from the consequences of “contract flipping.”

And arguably the most important feature stemming from this entire review process is notable by its absence: the retention of the secret-ballot vote for union certifications.

B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver remained steadfast in his refusal to support any labour code amendments that would do away with an employee’s right to express their true wishes via a secret ballot. Weaver should take a bow for holding the line against card-check certifications, a process in which unions are granted certification based solely on an employee’s signature on a card.

While it is true that employers can and have, in some cases, wielded undue influence over employees during certification drives, it is also true that some unions can and have grossly misrepresented what a simple signature on a card potentially invokes. There is no defensible, rational argument to justify the stripping away of an employee’s right to choose by expressing their true wishes via a secret ballot.

There are provisions of this proposed legislation, however, that are truly regressive and once again shine a light on this government’s unabashed alignment with the old-school unions — those that have supported them through thick and thin with millions upon millions in financial contributions.

It wasn’t long ago that we saw the first such payoff from this government, under the guise and misnomer of “Community Benefits Agreements” — a scheme whereby the NDP agreed to funnel billions of dollars of taxpayer-funded infrastructure work to a select group of unions.

This move created a labour-relations monopoly for these unions (read: millions in dues) and excluded 85 per cent of the province’s construction workforce who work with a progressive union or who choose to work non-union.

There are parallels between the monopolistic CBAs and the proposed legislation to amend the labour code. While they are more nuanced, the labour-code changes are no less intentional in their design and, like the so-called Community Benefits Agreements, once again target the construction sector.

The legislation carves out the construction sector from all others with the proposed legislation calling for an open season or “raiding period” every year in July and August, compared with once every three years in every other sector of the economy. On this point, the government is ignoring the advice of its own appointed expert panel with a provision that would be a Canadian anomaly.

Why the sectoral distinction? Raiding periods — times when one union can try to steal a workforce from another union — are akin to two-month political campaigns that affect safety and productivity and potentially jeopardize the viability of a project, should an ideologically and economically naïve union assume bargaining rights mid-project and threaten, or follow through on, strike action.

During these campaigns, truth is often the first casualty, and promises of all sorts are often made in an effort to secure signed cards. The old-school trade unions no doubt pleaded with the government to give them an annual kick at the can and the government acquiesced.

The result will be less, not more, stability in the construction sector, which runs directly counter to Bains’ apparent objectives.

The underlying theme common to the labour-code amendments and the CBA scheme is one of government intervention. The old-school building-trades unions have lost their once-firm stranglehold over the construction sector and have convinced their friends in office to use regulatory tools to legislate them back into relevance.

Once again, we are witness to the subtle and sophisticated ways that Bains and his NDP colleagues are using their time in government — and the public’s money — to reward their allies in the old-school labour movement.

Ken Baerg is the executive director of Canada Works, the Council of Progressive Canadian Unions, a collaboration of leading labour unions — large and small, active in all sectors of the economy.

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