(16 Oct. 2009) - The objectives of the legislation are threefold: to eliminate sectoral bargaining, to allow the establishment of employer-dominated company unions and to greatly reduce the power of unions in the construction industry.
By James Clancy
National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE)
Ottawa - Over the past year and a half a lot of attention has been paid to two pieces of anti-union legislation that the Brad Wall government introduced and passed in its first six months in office.
Bill 5, the Public Service Essential Services Act (PSESA), the most sweeping and heavy-handed essential services legislation in Canada, renders most strikes in the public service ineffective. Bill 6, the Trade Union Amendment Act, makes it much more difficult for workers in Saskatchewan to join unions and to engage in collective bargaining. It also leaves workers with less protection against unfair practices from employers.
Both bills were proclaimed in June 2008 and both have been condemned widely in Canada and around the world. Both laws are currently facing a Charter of Rights and Freedom challenge as well as a complaint before the International Labour Organization (ILO).
But there is a third piece of anti-union legislation introduced by the Wall government that has not received as much national attention. Bill 80, the Construction Industry Labour Relations Amendment Act (CILRA), was introduced in March of this year and recently has been going through legislative hearings.
Attack against workers
Make no mistake about it, Bill 80 represents as harsh of an attack against the rights of workers as Bills 5 and 6. Like Bills 5 and 6, it is being driven by pure ideology and is far more disturbing than it appears on the surface.
The objectives of the legislation are threefold: to eliminate sectoral bargaining, to allow the establishment of employer-dominated company unions and to greatly reduce the power of unions in the construction industry.
Currently, most of the commercial construction workers who work in specific trades in Saskatchewan are organized into province-wide unions based on the trade they practice. There is a closed shop and workers on all unionized sites must join the union representing their trade.
Bill 80 will take away these provisions by opening the door to “wall-to-wall” certifications, where all workers on a site, regardless of trade, are in one union. It also redefines “construction” to completely exclude “maintenance” which means a significant portion of unionized construction work will no longer be covered by the act. Further, the law will allow employers to select a union of its choice on currently non-union sites, and to resurrect old inactive spin-off companies and pick a union of choice for “wall-to-wall” certification.
Why change a successful model?
Trades-based certifications in the construction industry have been a fairly standard practice and far from new. Construction projects have been organized on a trade basis since the beginning of the 19th century.
More importantly, the system has existed to the benefit of workers, employers and the entire construction industry. It has provided flexibility and stability of labour supply, a skilled workforce for contractors, uniform wage rates and high standards of workmanship.
Why change this successful model? By virtue of the government’s own statistics, there doesn’t appear to be a problem from an economic or employer standpoint. In 2008, Saskatchewan was able to boast a record $2 billion in building permits and 37,000 construction jobs.
Added to that, there hasn’t been a strike in Saskatchewan’s construction industry in 17 years – a period where employers and unions representing tradespersons have been able to successfully negotiate provincial collective agreements.
Payback to the business community
The Wall government presents Bill 80 as “giving construction workers the choice" of which union to join. It’s hard to imagine how they can say this with a straight face – only months after amending the Trade Union Amendment Act (Bill 6) to make it more difficult for Saskatchewan workers to join unions.
Make no mistake about it, Bill 80 is all about payback by the Wall government to its key supporters. Consider the organizations which asked for the legislation. The Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, a financial backer of the Saskatchewan Party, is one of the primary boosters of the legislation. It has had a long-standing demand to reduce the power of unions in the construction industry. Its members are pleased to have the door open to non-unionized employers to bid on construction projects and to the establishment of employer-dominated company unions.
The other big booster of this legislation is that phony national organization representing employer-dominated unions across the country – the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC). In many of the workplaces organized by CLAC, the boss – not the workers – chooses the union.
Facts about CLAC
If you’re not familiar with the undemocratic principles of CLAC, then check out The Truth About CLAC. Here are just a few facts about CLAC and its phony unions:
- Many of CLAC’s bargaining units exist without one worker signing a union card. They are formed through voluntary recognition agreements – sweetheart deals negotiated behind closed doors between employers and CLAC staff.
- CLAC is also well known for attempts to raid other unions.
- CLAC frequently negotiates sub-standard agreements with provisions below the minimum standards of the law.
- CLAC staff has authority to “conclude, execute or administer collective agreements” without having to go back for a membership vote.
- CLAC often lobbies governments against anti-scab legislation, supports back to work legislation, promotes open shop and opposes the Rand formula.
- So-called “unions” like CLAC claim to have the best interests of working people at heart but they’re really nothing more than phoney, defanged employer front groups.
This legislation, like Bills 5 and 6, is totally unwarranted. The labour relations climate between contractors and trade unions in Saskatchewan’s construction industry is healthy, balanced and stable.
Labour movement must act
The Wall government cannot provide any fair or balanced reason for Bill 80. Unfortunately, this is another example of where the government’s stubborn right-wing ideology gets in the way of common sense. They are prepared to sacrifice the health of an important and growing industry in Saskatchewan to move their anti-union, anti-worker agenda along.
Certainly in this precarious period of the Canadian economy, we don’t need governments that promote division and confrontation. We need governments that focus on productive and cooperative approaches to rebuilding our economy.
The only positive outcome that Bill 80 can achieve is to strengthen the solidarity of our movement. It serves as a strong reminder that when it comes to laws that restrict the rights of workers, we must be guided by labour’s old adage – an injury to one is an injury to all.
We cannot look at a bad law as a single piece of legislation negatively impacting on a sector of our movement in a specific jurisdiction. A bad labour law, regardless of what workers and what jurisdiction it covers, negatively impacts on the entire labour movement. Fightback against a bad labour law has to be a commitment that the entire Canadian labour movement makes on behalf of all workers.
James Clancy is the national president of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), 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