The impending passage of Bill C-525 will be a victory for neither Canadians nor democracy. The only people celebrating will be those few at the top who will gain even more profit and control over our politics, economies and lives.
Ottawa (25 Feb. 2014) - Another session of Parliament, another corporate conservative bill pecking away at the foundations of our basic labour rights. This one is called Bill C-525. It’s a private member’s bill working its way through Parliament as we speak. If it's passed, it will make it more difficult for many Canadians to form and stay in a union.
Like Bill C-377 on “union transparency,” Bill C-525 is being sold as a measure to protect our freedoms: C-377 “protects” our freedom to information and C-525 “protects” our freedom to vote our conscience. But delve even an inch below the surface of these laws and it’s clear the only freedom they actually protect is the freedom of the few to continue amassing wealth and power at the expense of the many.
On the surface, Bill C-525 seems to protect democratic rights by mandating that Canadians working for a federally regulated employer express their desire to join together in a union through a secret ballot vote. What, after all, is more democratic than a secret ballot?
Bill C-525 will weaken our rights
In practice, however, Bill C-525 will only weaken our democratic rights. To understand how, you have to keep in mind the power imbalance that exists between an employer and an individual employee. This power imbalance is massive because our labour laws provide very little protection from unjust termination. For those who can’t afford a lawyer, they offer no protection.
In other words, there is virtually nothing preventing employers from simply firing Canadians advocating for, or even simply being in favour of, a union. Unless you've gone through a workplace union drive, it's nearly impossible to appreciate just how agonizing and frightening the whole process can be. Your livelihood, your home, your ability to put food on the table for your family—it’s all on the line.
The architects of Canada's labour laws recognized this massive power imbalance and therefore adopted a unionization process known as “card-check.” Under the card-check system, a workplace is unionized when a majority of employees in that workplace sign union cards. Signing a card is a worker's yes vote; not signing a card is their no vote. And since a card can be signed anywhere, anytime, the employer doesn’t necessarily know who’s in favour of unionizing or even if a unionization drive is taking place.
It's an elegant process that provides Canadians with both democratic rights and protection from intimidation and bullying.
For decades, federal labour law (along with most provincial labour law) used this card-check system. But with C-525, the federal government is now on the brink of abandoning card-check in favour of a system called “mandatory voting,” something five provinces have already a done. (Newfoundland and Labrador had implemented mandatory voting, but in 2012 switched back to card-check.)
Mandatory voting gives employers room to intimidate and harass
Under mandatory voting, once a majority (or strong minority) of workers sign union cards, the Labour Relations Board schedules a secret ballot vote open to every employee who might become part of the bargaining unit; the union is certified only if a majority vote in favour. This two stage process essentially forces those in favour of a union to vote twice. And by slowing the process, the employer has opportunity to intimidate, harass, and unethically induce employees to vote no.
Mandatory voting fundamentally discourages Canadians from exercising their labour rights. The evidence of this is clear. As shown by these two studies — one on Ontario, and the other on British Columbia — switching from card-check to mandatory voting causes a precipitous drop in the number of Canadians joining together to form unions.
Bill C-525’s second major provision weakens our labour rights even further, making it possible for a minority of people in a local to force the decertification process. Right now, a majority of people in a local have to formally express their dissatisfaction with their union before Labour Relations will call a secret ballot vote on the matter. Under Bill C-525, just 40 per cent will have to express their dissatisfaction to trigger a vote. And once that vote is scheduled, the employer has another opportunity to exercise its power over individual employees.
The corporate conservatives who champion mandatory-voting laws like C-525 hint that without a secret ballot, a large number of Canadians have been intimidated and threatened into signing union cards. They offer vague anecdotes and the usual scripted slurs against “union bosses,” but no actual evidence. That's because it doesn't exist.
Weak unions correlate with weak democracy
There is plenty of evidence, on the other hand, that as the percentage of unionized Canadians falls, so does the percentage of Canadians who vote, the percentage of Canadians who have secure work, and the percentage of Canadians whose wages keep up with inflation.
The impending passage of Bill C-525 will be a victory for neither Canadians nor democracy. The only people celebrating will be those few at the top who will gain even more profit and control over our politics, economies, and lives.
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE