Labour law changes unionization rules

N.L. introduces secret ballot voting

Unions in Newfoundland and Labrador fear the government’s sweeping changes to labour laws will make it more difficult to unionize.

Though it has only been two years since the province made amendments to the Labour Relations Act, this June saw the speedy passing of Bill 22, which established a new two-step certification process, including a mandatory secret ballot vote.

Under the new law, a clear majority of workers must vote to certify, regardless of how many signed union cards. As well, a certification vote with less than 70 per cent voter turnout counts those who don’t vote as automatically voting against unionization.

As well, new provisions would first establish a conciliation process to work with both employers and unions in an attempt to reach an agreement at the bargaining table before any strike measures might be taken.

This backtracks from the previous card-check system, which saw automatic certification when 65 per cent of employees signed union cards. That legislation was introduced in 2012 after then-labour minister Terry French made amendments to the Labour Relations Act, which made certification simpler.

As such, Lana Payne, Unifor’s Atlantic director (and the former president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour who spearheaded the changes in 2012) accused the government of flip-flopping.

"The speedy passing of Bill 22 makes it more difficult for workers to exercise their Charter (of Rights and Freedoms) right to unionize," Payne said. "We actually got word of it as they were bringing it into the house, there was no consultation — quite a difference in how labour legislation had been adopted."

But Dan Crummell, Minister of Service NL, defended the move, saying that it was important to re-evaluate the certification process and assess the importance of a secret ballot — for both workers and their employers.

"We believe this is the best approach for employees and employers at this point in time so that we have certification that is neutral and fair," he said. "Research has shown that workers want to have as much information as possible from both union and employers before deciding to certify. They also believe that a secret ballot is important."

Tenet of democracy

Moreover, a secret ballot vote is a tenet of democracy, Crummell went on to say.

"The marking of an ‘X’ in secret is a powerful symbol of democracy and I believe, after considering all the information again, that a two-stage certification process creates the best balance and fairness for workers."

But labour groups disagree, and have accused the government of tipping the scales in favour of employers. Payne, who noted there have been more than 20 applications for certification in the past 18 months, said the new system breeds a culture of unfairness.

"We’ve somehow said it’s okay for an employer to interfere with the ability of a worker to exercise their charter right," Payne said. "It’s a complete affront to what labour legislation and the Trade Union Act is supposed to do — find a fair way for workers to be able to organize themselves for the purpose of bargaining in a workplace."

Not only does the 70-per-cent-rule encourage voter suppression, Payne argued the new process is not as democratic as it is made out to be. She cited the province’s double envelope system, in which (after first signing a union card), the ballot is placed in an envelope, which is put in another envelope with the employee’s name written on the front. Hardly a "secret ballot vote," Payne said.

"There are many elements to democracy and having fair rules, I would argue, is one of them. And I would argue we don’t have fair rules," she added.

However, employer groups countered the previous system was unfair, as card-based certification begets automatic certification should 65 per cent of the employees say as much. That means the remaining 35 per cent get lost, said Vaughn Hammond, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business’ director of provincial affairs for Newfoundland and Labrador.

Hammond echoed the labour minister, and said the changes will bring democracy back into the certification process.

"Certifying a union is a personal decision and you need to be able to do that without the possibility of intimidation — a secret ballot vote allows that," Hammond said. "It allows employees to make a decision on unionizing their workplace without either having a union or their employer use various tactics of intimidation to make that happen or not happen."

The change, he went on to say, will have little to no affect on the relationship between most employers and employees, he said, the former of whom treat their workers like family, therefore harbouring a certain degree of loyalty. The change, he added, came about after workers asked for it.

"Now we’re at a place where you’re going to see transparency and accountability in labour relations in the province," Hammond added.

Tough times ahead for labour?

This most recent legislation is a harbinger for rapidly-slipping labour rights, Payne warned.

"I’m not going to sugar coat it — labour rights are very difficult to achieve for workers, and when you lose them, it’s really really difficult to get them back. It requires a lot of vigilance."

Particularly troubling, she said, is that the Liberal Party and official opposition voted alongside the government, ensuring the speedy passing of Bill 22. As such, tough times could be on the horizon for the labour movement.

"We’ve seen a number of decisions that are really hinting at a shift between the current government and its relationship with the labour movement — which has always been an uneasy relationship — I would argue that it’s going to get a heck of a lot bumpier now," she said, citing Bill 22 and the province’s refusal last year to bump up minimum wage. "(These) anti-worker decisions are sending a clear message, and we need to be prepared for it."

Latest stories