Newfoundland and Labrador amends labour laws

Companies and unions caught off guard by changes to collective bargaining rules

Employers in Newfoundland and Labrador are concerned about a major change to the province’s labour laws they say caught them off guard.

It would allow automatic certification in a workplace if 65 per cent of employees sign union cards.

The necessity of the amendment remains unknown to Richard Alexander, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Employers’ Council (NLEC).

“We’ve seen time and time again where organizers have gone into a workplace and 65 per cent of the workers have signed a card, but when it actually came to the vote they’ve voted no,” he says, adding he’s been inundated with calls from concerned employers since the announcement.

The change was one of several made to “modernize” the province’s labour laws, according the provincial government. They come on the heels of an inquiry into the protracted 18-month labour dispute at the Vale mine in Voisey’s Bay, N.L., as well as a study into special projects and a tripartite review of labour legislation that involved government, employers and trade unions.

Trade unions in the province welcome many of the changes, particularly the controversial automatic certification.

Organizing workplaces has become “onerous” in the province because of the lag time between card signing and the vote, says Lana Payne, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour (NLFL).

“Sometimes it could take a year or two before members reached a collective agreement in a workplace,” she says, adding the threshold of 65 per cent is the highest in the country and shared only by Manitoba. “That’s a pretty high test. Even if 10 per cent changed their mind (later on) that’s still a clear majority.”

The other controversial amendment allows employers a one-time power to go directly to workers to ask them to vote on an offer.

This will undermine the authority of union representatives and give employers more power at the bargaining table, says Payne. She is also concerned it will actually impede the collective bargaining process.

“This could have the reverse effect,” she says. “I could see either side becoming even more entrenched. If the employer goes out with the offer and it’s rejected, there will be the expectation there will be more on the table.”

The NLFL is asking the province to reconsider this provision, particularly in the public sector where the government is both legislator and employer.

Meanwhile, Alexander applauds the amended legislation. Allowing a final offer vote will be an effective tool at decreasing both strikes and their duration, he says.

But what’s more significant is what is not in the amendments, Alexander says.

Trade unions had been pushing for anti-replacement worker legislation, binding arbitration to end protracted disputes and legislation designed to treat multinationals differently — none of which were included in the amendments.

The absence of some of the more controversial recommendations will “keep Newfoundland and Labrador open for business,” according to Alexander, so long as there are provisions to assure employers that workers want a union. He looks to Manitoba where employers can file a complaint with the provincial labour relations board if they’re concerned.

Alexander commends the province for taking a more cautious approach that also includes greater penalties for bad faith bargaining, an examination of conciliation boards and their usefulness and the intention to lobby the federal government to add a provision that would add a labour relations dimension to the act that governs foreign investment.

Meanwhile, organized labour is also looking for assurances: They want more specific details around how the final offer vote legislation will work, Payne says.

“Our concerns are what exactly will employers be giving workers, and how unions can perform their duty to represent members when they’re being taken out of the picture,” she says.

That said, there are still a number of victories for labour, according to Payne. For example, the labour minister can now appoint a first collective agreement mediator when the parties fail to reach a first collective agreement within 60 days.

“This is often the toughest agreement to reach,” she says. “If you can get people in a room and get them talking, and there’s acceptance of the union, you can often do it without a strike or lockout.”

Overall, the reforms are a leap forward for workers, Payne says.

“We need to have good tools that reflect the modern times in which we live,” she says.

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