During the last sitting day of the House of Assembly, the government flip-flopped on a piece of labour legislation. It was a surprise, because the law they reversed was not quite two years old.
In 2012, the government passed legislation making it easier for people to join a union.
Under the act, unions could use card-based certification to organize a workplace. If 65 per cent of the employees signed a union card, there would be no need for a secret ballot.
At the time, the labour movement heralded the change as a positive one and the government promoted it as bringing balance to the process of organizing.
The second big change in the act was to allow an employer the opportunity to bypass union negotiating teams and go directly to union members for a vote on a contract offer. The minister responsible for labour relations at the time, Terry French, said the two changes represented a fair balance, with the vote on offer provision favouring employers and the card certification process favouring unions.
“It’s about trying to find that balance, so you want to have something there that’s good for labour and you want to have something that’s good for employers,” he said.
Shortly after the bill went through the House, the card-based certification procedure was made law, but the vote on offer section of the legislation was never enacted. Employers have been crying foul ever since.
The current minister of labour relations, Dan Crummell, is singing a completely different tune from his predecessor. He says the government didn’t frame the two changes as providing balance.
“There was no quid pro quo with regards to that,” Crummell said, adding that workers and employers were telling him they felt that joining a union should require a secret ballot.
In the end, the province pulled the plug on card-based certification and a secret ballot process will now be required to organize a union.
As for the “on offer” provision in the act, the one that was never enacted? Government is apparently moving forward with that.
Labour and business are firmly divided. Labour leaders claim that employees can be intimidated to vote a certain way on secret ballots and so the outcomes don’t necessarily reflect how people really feel. Employers argue that open card certification gives unions the opportunity to intimidate prospective members. I’m not sure that’s the balance you’re looking for if no one is happy.
There are disturbing aspects of this story that deserve explanation. Why the sudden change and the quick vote in the House?
There was hardly a whiff of prior knowledge that it was even being considered.
While opposition parties could be expected to ask why the “on offer” provisions had not been implemented, no one had any idea the entire piece of legislation was about to be dumped in favour of a new approach.
Federation of Labour president Mary Shortall called the sudden change an “affront to workers” and a “double-cross.”
She accused the government of capitulating to business interests and took a shot at the incoming premier.
“If the government under Frank Coleman is going to operate like a Harper government, then I expect it will be a short-lived one,” she said.
There’s no denying that the business lobby got these changes made and managed to do so without a lot of fanfare before the vote.
Someone, somewhere has a lot of influence.
Less than a week before the vote, no one outside of key cabinet members had any idea this was coming. Backbenchers were not in the loop and neither was the opposition.
No one bothered to ask the unions if the card certification process was working and no one bothered to finish the job and give employers their rights before eliminating the whole thing.
There is an unidentified power at work here, and that should concern everyone.
Randy Simms is a political commentator and broadcaster. He can be reached at