Senators Take Up Union Bill

The Senate is taking up an Alberta-style bill that would make it easier to decertify unions at federally-regulated workplaces. Bill C-525 An Act To Amend The Canada Labour Code lowers the threshold of votes needed to trigger a decertification ballot from the current 50 percent to 40.

“I believe this approach is fair and will create a level playing field,” said Alberta Conservative Senator Scott Tannas in opening Second Reading debate; “It is a common-sense bill.”

The measure also repeals the decades-old membership card check system for certifying and disbanding unions in favour of secret balloting by employees, a measure adopted by Alberta in 1988. Alberta today has the lowest unionization rate in the country, by official estimate.

“It will make the certification and decertification process for unions a much more democratic one in which all workers can have their voices heard without fear of intimidation,” Tannas said. Commons supporters also claimed the card check system subjected workers to “bullying, threats or even blackmail”, though federal Industrial Relations Board records indicated only 0.04 percent of investigations conducted in the past ten years – a total 2 of 4,629 cases – involved allegations of union intimidation.

“How would the process work?” said Senator Joan Fraser (Liberal-Que.), deputy opposition leader; “How would it be established that there should be a vote on certification if they are not signing cards? Can you enlighten me?”

“I’m afraid I can’t,” Tannas replied.

The traditional system of having union supporters sign membership cards has been repealed in all provinces but Manitoba, Québec, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Bill C-525 applies to some one million workers in federally-regulated workplaces including railways, airports, marine shipping, banking and broadcasting.

Bill C-525 passed the Commons last April 9 amid acknowledgement it would restrict union organizers. “It is not the job of any government to ensure that union certification is as easy as possible,” said Conservative MP Blaine Calkins (Wetaskiwin, Alta.), sponsor of the bill; “The union is able to collect union dues, a massive taxation power on the backs of workers.”

Senate debate on the bill coincided with new data indicating annual wage settlements for unionized workers averaged 1.4 percent last year, the smallest gains since 1997. Contract settlements averaged three years.

“As the Bank of Canada forecasts inflation to rise gradually to 2 percent in 2016, employees who ratified longer settlements may see negative wage growth towards the end of their agreements,” noted a Department of Employment report Overview Of Collective Bargaining In Canada 2013.

Settlements for public employees averaged 1 percent, with 2.2 percent gains in private sector contracts reached last year. “Efforts by governments to constrain public-sector wage growth contributed to the downward pressure,” the labour study concluded.

Québec and Newfoundland & Labrador had the most unionized workforce in Canada at 40 percent, followed by Manitoba (36 percent); Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan (35 percent); British Columbia (32 percent); Nova Scotia (30 percent); New Brunswick (29 percent); Ontario (28 percent) and Alberta (23 percent).

By Paul Delahanty

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