Rob Shaw: It’s unclear why the BC NDP interfered in lawyers’ union drive – but it backfired

The BC NDP government has quietly paused a bill that would make the province’s 300 or so civil lawyers join the Professional Employees Association | Province of BC/Flickr

The B.C. government is having second thoughts about legislation to force its in-house lawyers into a union they didn’t choose, after the move kickstarted an uprising within organized labour.

The NDP has quietly paused a bill that would make the province’s 300 or so civil lawyers join the Professional Employees Association.

At the same time, it has opened backchannel talks to try and extricate itself from a possible strike by the lawyers, as well as a growing backlash from other unions.

“We’re happy to talk, but we want to see the bill removed altogether,” said Gareth Morley, president of the BC Government Lawyers Association.

The lawyers, which handle civil matters like child protection issues, class-action lawsuits, tribunals and internal ministry legal advice, voted 97.1 per cent in favour of job action last weekend.

The BC Federation of Labour, BC General Employees’ Union, BC Crown Counsel Association and even the Professional Employees Association (which stands to benefit from the forced membership) have spoken out against the move, saying the NDP is overstepping its bounds and unnecessarily interfering in a union drive.

The federation said in a statement it is “disappointed that government has chosen this path.”

“It is important to protect the rights of working people to join or form a union of their choosing.”

The organized labour sector is particularly upset at how the NDP, normally a champion of unions, has undercut the rights of the lawyers in the middle of an organizing drive that saw 70 per cent of lawyers sign union cards.

The government intervention also shuts down an ongoing BC Labour Relations Board process the lawyers had initiated to form their own bargaining agent.

"No employer should have the right to assign any group of employees to a union that it selects,” said Adam Dalrymple, vice-president of the BC Crown Counsel Association, which represents a separate group of prosecutors. “There’s no independence in that.”

It’s unclear exactly why the NDP is picking this fight and taking it to such extremes, rather than simply letting the civil lawyers organize into whatever union they want.

It may have something to do with the government being hesitant to allow yet another bargaining agent to be created, which complicates public-service contract negotiations.

It could also include internal ministry frustration at how ongoing labour issues with the civil lawyers have simmered now for almost a decade.

Perhaps the government simply realized it was going to lose the Labour Relations Board ruling, and rushed forward the legislation just days after the two sides made their opening submissions to the board.

There is also the David Eby issue.

A 2018 promise from the government that it would never impose legislation onto civil lawyers came while Eby was Attorney General. Now premier, the lawyers want Eby to intervene and withdraw the bill. But the whole legislation could have quietly been his idea in the first place.

Although internally the government is pausing the bill for reconsideration, externally the province is projecting confidence in the dispute.

“Bill 5 actually allows the lawyers to be part of a component where they would be able to bargain individually their unique needs and benefits,” said Finance Minister Katrine Conroy.

It’s telling that Conroy is fronting the bill. Typically, a matter like this would be handled by Labour Minister Harry Bains. But he’s spent his life fighting for the rights of workers to collectively organize, and overseeing this bill would put him in an uncomfortable position indeed.

“Bill 5 is about making sure that they have a right to collect a bargain and belong to the union and that's where we're going to move ahead with it,” added Conroy.

“Discussions are underway and we believe that they will, things will work out.”

If by ‘work out’ you mean the NDP will have to backpedal away from the kind of strong-arm, anti-organizing tactics that you’d normally associate with the previous BC Liberal administration, then, sure.

In the meantime, the lawyers will keep rallying advocates and ratcheting up pressure on the government.

“I’m sure they wanted to do this as quickly as possible and get this over with,” said Morley.

“What I think they weren’t quite expecting was the degree of unity and outrage that they got, and the support we got from the labour movement generally.”

At this point, the best solution for New Democrats would probably be to find an artful way to make sure Bill 5 dies on the order paper, before this labour dispute gets messier and more politically damaging for the Eby administration.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.