B.C. business resigned to union-friendly labour code changes

Greens an unlikely saviour for business, but could it cost them electorally?

Amendments to B.C.’s Employment Standards Act have added protections for organized labour in the province, but do not go as far as some critics had feared | i viewfinder/Shutterstock

For the first time since 2002, British Columbia’s labour code has been amended after a more than yearlong process.

While many businesses expected the BC NDP to radically tilt the Employment Standards Act in favour of unionized workers, the changes were not as dramatic as expected, said Jock Finlayson, executive vice-president and chief policy officer of the Business Council of British Columbia (BCBC).

 “We’re not surprised or shocked by the changes to the code, particularly given that this is a union-oriented government that is attentive to trade union leaders,” Finlayson said. “Most of the changes that are included in the code are designed to make it a little more union friendly.”

The amendments largely followed recommendations made to the government by a three-person panel.

One of the biggest concerns businesses had was that the government might eliminate the secret ballot vote for union certification. This would allow union certification to occur if a certain percentage of employees literally sign on to the idea of unionization, a system known as card check. Finlayson said the idea of removing the secret ballot was a red flag for BCBC and the business community.

Laird Cronk, president of the BC Federation of Labour said he would like to have seen B.C. follow the process accepted in six other provinces, mostly in the Prairies and the Maritimes, allowing for a one-step union certification system like card check. He considers the secret ballot process an undue burden for workers. He argues that there is no need to have a second vote when a majority of employees agreed to have the certification vote in the first place.

While the secret ballot remains in place, unions gained other advantages in the certification process. The amendments include a shortened period of time between workers signing cards and an employee vote, from 10 days to five, and limits on what employers are allowed to say during the certification process. The union certification amendment that poses the biggest concern to businesses is a provision for automatic certification should the labour board find an employer to have unduly interfered with the certification process.

 “Overall we’re pleased as a federation to see the government moving in the right direction to rebalance the labour code,” Cronk said. “It’s the first real positive rebalancing changes we’ve seen in two decades.”

Businesses are less certain that the labour code was in need of a major update. During the pubic consultation process which started late last year, Finlayson pointed to the lack of labour disputes in the recent past as evidence that the labour code was working well without  the amendments.

Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver did not support moving away from the secret ballot.

The Green opposition to card check could spell electoral trouble for the party’s federal counterpart, which is trying to take advantage of the federal NDP’s decline in the polls. Many NDP voters are either union workers or supporters, and wooing them over could prove difficult in union-friendly regions like Vancouver Island and industrial parts of Ontario. The federal party is not stating whether it supports or opposes card check, but insists that it would remove all impediments to people’s human right to freely bargain. It is not clear whether the federal party interprets a secret ballot as an impediment.

B.C. business leaders have also taken note of the new labour code’s successorship protections for specific industries including janitorial, food and health care sectors.

The new labour code prevents what the Labour Minister Harry Bains called “contract flipping” or the ability for employers to re-tender services when a business changes hands, making it necessary for employees to reapply for their jobs without the benefits earned under a collective agreement with their old employer.

Previously, if a service contract was taken over by a new service provider, the new provider was not required to honour the collective agreement in place. Bains said this causes people to lose their jobs or be forced to accept lower wages and benefits.

Finlayson said the inability to renegotiate when re-tendering a service contract hurts competition in the labour market and leads to higher prices for businesses contracting out those services.

Cronk, however, said that it is unfair to lower prices and increase competitiveness on the backs of employees.

Other changes include a new rules about picketing, to comply with rulings made by the Supreme Court of Canada. However, no changes were made to rules against secondary picketing, the ability to picket companies tangentially related to the business involved in a labour dispute, which some had feared. Public education has also been removed as an essential service, which includes medical workers, police, firefighters and public education employees. This could mean labour disputes for the education sector in the near future.