Under the current set-up, there are two ways in which non-unionized employees can unionize their workplace. The first is known as card check certification, and occurs when over 50% of employees have signed membership cards stating their intention to join a union. If the Canada Industrial Relations Board confirms that a majority of employees have independently chosen to sign a union card free of any coercion and wish their workplace to become unionized, the Board issues a certificate, thus making the workplace unionized. The second way that a workplace can become unionized is through a secret ballot election. In instances in which more than 35% of employees but less than 50% of employees have signed a card stating their desire to unionize their workplace, the Board orders a secret ballot election to allow all employees to determine if they wish their workplace to become unionized. If a majority of those who cast a ballot vote in favour of the union, then the Board issues a certificate and the workplace becomes unionized.
While the secret ballot election approach exists in all ten provinces, only four provinces (Manitoba, Quebec, New Brunswick and PEI) allow for unions to be certified through the card check certification process. In Manitoba, however, 65% of employees must sign a union card before the workplace becomes automatically unionized without a vote. In Ontario, between 1948 and 1995, employees wishing to unionize had the option of using the card check certification procedure. However, after coming to power in 1995, one of the first things that Mike Harris did was to alter Ontario’s Labour Relations Act to mandate that every union be certified through a secret ballot election, even if 100% of employees had signed a card stating a desire to have their workplace unionized.
A move away from card check certification to a mandatory secret ballot election would impede the efforts of unions to organize new members. A study by Sarah Slinn of Osgoode Hall Law School traced the effect of such a move in Ontario during the 1990s. Her study found that eliminating the option of card check certification had a considerable impact of unions’ success. Prior to the introduction of a mandatory vote, unions were successful in almost 73% of certification applications. However, following the elimination of card check certification and the introduction of a mandatory secret ballot vote, the success rate of union certification drives dropped considerably and they were successful in just over 64% of certification drives. She also noted that a mandatory secret ballot election also had other adverse effects on union organizing, including a reduction in the number of private sector workplaces being organized, a reduction in the number of smaller bargaining units being organized, and a reduction in the number of bargaining units consisting primarily of part-time employees. The data from Ontario suggests that unions would face significant challenges in organizing new members if the federal government were to make all union certifications subject to a secret ballot election and end the possibility of certification through card check certification.