New labour law has a dark side

Randy Simms
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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 rsimms@nf.sympatico.ca

Twitter: @RandyRsimms

Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Employers, Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, Labour Relations Agency

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  • Ed Power
    December 15, 2013 - 10:25

    Curious, why Mr. Simms would highlight the unlikely scenario where union "thugs" - in a scene from a McCarthy-era Hollywood "B" movie - scare workers into signing union cards or voting to form a union, but ignores the tactics used by the corporate sector to intimidate workers who try to unionize - firing organizers, firing anyone who signs a card, reducing the employee hours and wages, hiring security firms to police the workplace and harass pro-union employees and - in the case of such high-wage stars of the corporate sector like McDonalds and Wal Mart - closing down stores and businesses where workers dare to organize. Yes, Mr. Simms, the unions have exercised such great control of the economy over the past decades that the numbers of unionized workers in the country is lower than it was in the 1960s. Curious, isn't it, how wages have stagnated and fallen over these past three decades as the union membership declined and corporate profits dramatically increased? Why one would almost think that there is a corporate conspiracy afoot to return us to the "Good Olde Days" of the Robber Barons, child labour, six day workweek, 12 hour or longer work days, low wages, no benefits, fish merchants and the company store. Oh wait, there are such Ayn Randian paradises in the world today, where unions don't exist, environmental and safety laws are non-existent and where workers are paid pennies per hour - China, Viet Nam, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Haiti......

    • david
      December 15, 2013 - 13:26

      I got as far as "unlikely" and realized your lengthy post would be delusionally biased. PS: Brevity is you friend.

  • Roy Rideout
    December 15, 2013 - 09:51

    Randy Simms is right labor has a dark side, wanting to have a clause that prohibits replacement workers is one of their dark sides where they can force any company to submit to their demands whether reasonable or not. Having employees vote to accept a union without a secret ballot is bullying and intimidation at its worse and for government to allow this is criminal. I have been in situations where this practice has taken place where someone stands in front of a group and intimidates and puts them in a situation where the question is do I cross the line and submit or do I stay and be harassed by those who cross the line even if they themselves really don't want to but want pointed out, where has democracy gone . I could go on but you see my point, and Randys , we might as well give up freedom of speech and secret ballots in elections. Unions agree with this no secret ballot because they will get more membership by using this tactic .

  • David
    December 14, 2013 - 12:39

    ...and in the case of unions not getting the 65%, the employer will know who wanted to be unionized. Layoffs are sure to follow, and guess who will be the first to go? And Randy, you can't tell us you aren't aware of the scare tactics employers use to dissuade would-be union members from voting against unionization?! I agree, secret ballot is best, but for entirely different reasons than you espouse, Randy. Darin King, and the Conservative party know the new labour laws are detrimental to unions and unionization hopefuls....that's why the ruling 'business party'...the Tories, enacted it. It's a coup against unions.

    • david
      December 15, 2013 - 13:22

      Please do use that incredible intellect of yours to pick another posting name....I wouldn't want anyone to think that I should get any credit for your "thoughts".