We’ll call her Joan. She’s working for a company that’s about to be unionized. She’s been there six years and things are going pretty well. Her job seems secure, and while advancement is not her top priority right now, the opportunity to move up the ladder is there. Recently she signed a union card and now the company is going to be hit with a certification order from the Labour Relations Board. Let the bargaining begin.
Joan wasn’t happy when she signed the union card; some of her more dissatisfied coworkers had given her grief about it. Under the rules, 65 per cent of employees have to sign up for the union in order for certification to happen automatically.
A workplace is very much a social place, of course, and people are often influenced by the positions espoused by their friends. Several of Joan’s friends and coworkers have grievances with their employer. They want a bargaining agent.
Joan felt caught in the middle. She didn’t want to distance herself from her coworkers and they made it pretty clear that without her signature on the union card, that relationship would change.
Joan signed the card, and the union was born.
She would have preferred a secret vote. Then she could have voted her conscience and no one would be the wiser. But thanks to changes in the province’s labour laws, Joan’s decision is known to everyone. She felt there was no choice but to “join the team.”
According to the Newfoundland and Labrador Employers’ Council, Joan’s story is typical of the problem this new rule has created. Executive director Richard Alexander says they have seen significant differences in union support when it is decided by a secret ballot versus the card-based certification process.
“There is as much as 47 per cent less support for the union in the secret ballot process,” he says.
Alexander bases this figure on cases where the union has not been able to sign up the 65 per cent required for automatic certification. In those cases a secret vote is held and he says there is a significant difference in the level of support. Does the card certification process lead to the intimidation of employees by union supporters, and does it bring about the result the union is after?
Unless people like Joan are prepared to come forward and say so, we may never know.
Not surprisingly, the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, Mary Shortall, says she’s quite happy with the new arrangement. The minister responsible for the Labour Relations Agency, Darin King, likes it too, and says he has no plan to reverse the card certification process.
Employers are supposed to get something out of these changes, as well. Under the new legislation, they will get the right to bypass a negotiating committee at least once during negotiations and demand a vote on a contract offer. That part of the law has not yet passed but King says he’ll look after it in the new year. The new legislation is supposed to help unions better represent workers, and I firmly believe that many of the benefits we enjoy as workers today came from the struggles of the labour movement; it’s naive to think current working conditions would exist without that crucial groundwork. Still, I have difficulty with this new process.
The right to vote without fear of intimidation is sacrosanct. It is a bedrock value of our society. Imagine if governments had the right to know how you voted, and for whom. Can you imagine the outcome of such a scenario? It would lead to the collapse of democracy.
There are those who would argue that down through history that’s happened many times, including in this province.
Maybe you think I’m being melodramatic and exaggerating the impact of this new legislation.
Fair enough. But still …
Randy Simms is a political commentator and broadcaster. He can be reached at email@example.com