B.C. debates labour code

Turbulent times ahead if both sides dig in their heels

The British Columbia government has torn up public-sector labour contracts and now wants to give private-sector employers the ability to do the same, claims the province’s leading labour organization.

Last month, B.C. Labour Minister Graham Bruce released a discussion paper with suggestions for changes to the province’s labour code. The proposals, if accepted, would make it harder for workers to unionize while making it easier for employers to decertify unions, said Jim Sinclair, president of the British Columbia Federation of Labour.

The government said changes are necessary to revitalize the economy and improve job creation and competitiveness. The Liberal government of Gordon Campbell moved quickly after winning the election, last year, to make some changes to the code including the restoration of the secret ballot for union certification votes. Previously, if 55 per cent of employees signed a union card, certification was automatic.

The latest proposed changes would provide “greater flexibility, fairness and efficiency for employers and employees alike,” according to the government.

But Sinclair said the changes will only benefit employers, and that by driving a wedge between labour and employers it will be more difficult for the economy to recover. He is also unhappy that labour wasn’t being given more say into possible changes.

The government is gathering feedback from the public until April 11. “This can’t be construed as proper consultations,” said Sinclair. He wants the government to strike a formal committee with balanced representation from labour and business.

Among the topics included in the discussion paper are the definitions of picketing and manager, as well as the rights of employers to communicate with employees during certification drives.

In particular, the federation opposes changes to bargaining rights.

If a company in bankruptcy is sold or transferred to new owners, it is proposed the new owners would not be bound by the collective agreement, unless the labour relations board believes the “employer is attempting to evade collective bargaining obligations.” Supporters of the change say this would make it easier for a bankrupt firm to be sold off. Similarly, the paper raises the possibility that an employer would be able to apply for decertification after ceasing operations for two years. Currently there is no time limit after which an employer that has ceased operations can apply for decertification.

Sinclair said that a company could use the time limitation to get rid of unions, citing an article in the Vancouver Sun as proof that is the intention of some employers. In the article, the vice-president of one of the province’s larger construction companies, PCL Construction, said the firm wants to be able to sub-contract all of its work to non-union shops and then, after two years, decertify its unions.

Gary Catherwood, a partner in the Vancouver office of employment law firm Fasken Martineau DuMoulin, agreed some employers could use the two-year rule to rid themselves of a union.

For the construction industry in particular, where it has become difficult for unionized operations to find work, some employers may decide to cease operations and then start up again without a union, he said.

The changes would give employers more power while lowering labour standards, said Sinclair. “It is all about a cheap labour strategy for the province.”

Employer groups, however, feel unions have had too much power in the province and that changes would only restore a better balance between unions and employers.

John Winter, president of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, said he is pleased with the direction the government is moving. The chamber supports the proposed changes on bargaining rights and the code’s strong language about the importance of productivity. The changes would be largely symbolic, but it would also send “a message to the labour relations board about how they should look at disputes,” said Winter.

However, he also said the chamber was disappointed to see the government is not considering amendments to section 68, which effectively bans the use of replacement workers. Other business groups, like Business Council of British Columbia, have called for changes to this section but the government was unequivocal in presenting the discussion paper, saying the replacement worker section of the code would not be amended.

Winter agreed that the changes will likely have a chilling effect on labour relations.

“I think it is going to get worse before it gets better,” he said. “Tensions will increase across the table as both sides dig in.” He said the changes are necessary because without them, investors will be reluctant to put any money into the province.

Within a year the union efforts will probably run out of steam since the government seems determined to go ahead their changes are essentially a fait accompli, said Winter.

But Sinclair said labour groups “won’t give up without a fight.” Asked how they will oppose the changes, Sinclair said, “I don’t rule anything out.”

Proposals for B.C. labour code changes

The discussion paper outlining proposed changes to the British Columbia labour code are available online at www.gov.bc.ca/sdl, click on “labour relations review.”

Among some of the issues being considered:

Definition of manager: Concerns have been raised that the labour relations board has reduced the scope of manager functions to include only supervisors who have the right to hire and to fire employees. Because of that it has been suggested that persons who are integrated into a management team, and not just those who hire or fire, should be excluded from the bargaining unit.

Right to communicate: Some employers want the right to communicate with employees, especially during certification and decertification drives. There are also concerns that the restrictions in current language of may be vulnerable to a Charter challenge. In light of this, it’s been suggested employers should be able to meet with employees within 48 hours of a vote providing a person from the labour relations board is present and attendance would be voluntary.

Successorship rights: Collective agreements currently apply when a company in bankruptcy is sold. It has been suggested that should not apply if the business is sold, leased or transferred under the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act, unless the LRB is satisfied that the employer is attempting to evade collective bargaining obligations.

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