Ontario government proposes public sector-union merger changes

No vote if 1 union represents 60 per cent of workforce

A proposal to change the way Ontario’s public sector unions merge bargaining units has raised the eyebrows of organized labour — but the government says the changes will streamline the process.

Bill 109, known as the Employment and Labour Statute Law Amendment Act, was introduced at Queen’s Park earlier this summer by labour minister Kevin Flynn and amends various statutes governing how the province deals with its unions.

Under the current draft, when an employer must merge bargaining units following an event such as amalgamation or a
restructuring, workers would not be required to choose the winning union if one union represented at least 60 per cent of the workforce.

As the act stands, a singular employer that has two or more unions representing employees could make an application to the Ontario Labour Relations Board to have employees vote on which union should be awarded the contract.

The act would also allow Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) survivor benefits to be calculated based on the deceased worker’s average earnings at the time of diagnosis, as opposed to the current legislated minimum — which the province said will potentially increase the amount of support families receive. The WSIB pays out $2.5 billion in benefits each year, according to the Ministry of Labour.

Maximum corporate penalties would also increase from $100,000 to $500,000 for health and safety code infractions.

As well, more dispute resolution tools would be made available for the province’s firefighters and professional fire services staff, including that labour disputes would be heard by the labour relations board, not the Ontario court system.

Should Bill 109 become law, it would amend three acts affecting workers in Ontario: the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, the Fire Prevention and Protection Act and the Public Sector Labour Relations Transition Act.

The changes will streamline the process when mergers occur, as well as avoid or limit any potential for disruption, according to the labour ministry.

"Our government is committed to advancing safe, fair and respectful workplace practices," Flynn said in a statement. "That’s why I’ve proposed these changes which will, if they become law, provide increased fairness to workers across Ontario by strengthening protections in legislation."

But before Bill 109 receives royal assent, labour groups are hoping it will be further amended.

As is, the drafted legislation is an affront to democratic integrity, said Warren "Smokey" Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU).

"I don’t care if they’ve only got one (union) member — they’ve got the right to vote," Thomas said. "It’s one thing to go and get hired at a union shop — you know it’s a unionized workplace when you take the job — and it’s quite the other to be in a non-union shop and all of a sudden somebody says, ‘Well now, because we’re merging, you have to join a union.’ We think you should have to vote yes or no."

Apart from the fundamental democratic implications, Thomas said the proposed law is a fix for a problem that does not exist. For instance, merger votes are typically carried out by the union and not particularly expensive or tedious, he explained.

"On a number of fronts, I think it flies in the face of what the trade union movement stands for, and it seems to me that the government sees it as an opportunity maybe just to make things go quicker," Thomas said.

As such, OPSEU has officially called on the Canadian Labour Congress and other unions to denounce the draft bill as undemocratic and to push the provincial government to make the appropriate changes.

He also confirmed that should the bill become law in its current design, the union would pursue a legal challenge.

Of particular concern is the new system does not take into account the fact that bigger isn’t necessarily better, said Thomas. Whereas one union may be able to sign up a majority of workers through an organizing drive, it wouldn’t mean that same union boasts a superior collective agreement or an ability to enforce it.

Workers could also lose out on high-calibre representation, he said, when two unions vie for the winning contract because it is, at its base, an election — the victorious union or "candidate" would gain an employee’s support during a healthy competition. That means unions work harder to show what they can offer and how they can better that workplace.

Thomas cited hospitals as one workplace that could become bogged down in a merger vote under Bill 109. Typically, when hospitals merge, there are both union and non-union factions, so a significant number of employees could be left unhappy with either outcome — whether they would now have to join a union or lose certification. Thus, he said the 60-per-cent-minimum-rule is arbitrary.

"The biggest thing I find offensive is that workers just won’t get a vote under certain circumstances, and you should get a vote every time," he said, adding, "When, as the labour movement, do we stand up and say enough is enough?"

However, when Flynn first introduced the bill in the legislature, he said it will preserve the rights of workers and increase efficiency for government and public sector employers.

"(Bill 109) will bring increased fairness and efficiency for working people in our province," Flynn said at the time. "It will also help reduce the potential for disruption or delay following events in the broader public sector to which the act applies, an example being amalgamation or restructuring."

Tacked on alongside workplace safety and firefighter dispute legislation, he added the bill will boost the labour force.

"Strengthening protections for workers while supporting business is part of our government's plan to build Ontario up and create that just society we all want."

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