B.C. introduces controversial labour bill

Government attempts to balance interests of unions and business

Bill 18, B.C.’s Skills Development and Labour Statutes Amendment Act, 2001, comes as no surprise: it contains four of the newly-elected Liberal government’s New Era commitments to "protect the public and restore flexibility and democratic rights to the workplace." That doesn’t mean that the bill’s reforms are popular. In fact, business and labour alike are up in arms over what's included in the bill – and what's not.

The bill contains the following four amendments:

Education is restored as an essential service. Education was an essential service until 1993, when the NDP was elected in B.C. Bill 18 will reinstate that status. That doesn’t mean teachers will no longer have the right to strike. However, in the event of a labour dispute, the Labour Relations Board will be able to designate what services must continue during a strike or lockout to prevent immediate and serious disruption to education.

Secret ballot votes on certification are ensured. Workers will have the right to vote secretly for union certification, as they do for decertification. Currently, if 55 per cent or more of employees sign a union card, certification is automatic.

Sectoral bargaining is outlawed. In 1998, a master collective agreement was imposed on the industrial, commercial and institutional construction sector. Under the existing regime, if a new contractor is unionized, it has to accept the terms of this master agreement. Once Bill 18 is enacted, sectoral bargaining will be repealed and employers and workers will be able to negotiate contracts independently.

Pension benefits are restored. The Pension Benefits Standards Act was amended in 1999 to allow some pension plans to suspend benefits to early retirees who chose to continue working in their previous field of employment. Bill 18 will do away with this practice and ensure that the benefits of anyone whose pension has been suspended are reinstated.

Bill 18 represents a delicate balancing act on the government’s part. It wanted to make the province more inviting to businesses without estranging B.C. workers who are members of a union. B.C. is more heavily unionized than most parts of the country: 35.4 per cent of workers in B.C. are union members, compared with the national average of 32.2 per cent.

The changes Bill 18 will implement will likely reduce the spread of unions. That’s good news for businesses, but it’s not enough. B.C. employers want the government to repeal the ban on replacement workers – another platform promise. This move would antagonize unions, however, and the Liberal government has decided not to go that far – at least, not right now. Labour Minister Graham Bruce has indicated that changes are likely to be made to Labour Code policies, employment standards, and the Labour Relations Board. Any modifications in these areas, however, will only occur after a consultative process.

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