Unions brace for anti-worker legislation in Manitoba

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Manitoba workers could be facing tougher union certification rules if proposed labour law changes, tabled this week, are passed.

Spearheaded by the province's new Progressive Conservative government, the possible changes -- detailed in Bill 7, the Labour Relations Amendment Act -- will ban automatic certification as a pathway to unionization if successful.

The move has been heavily criticized by workers advocates, with the Manitoba Federation of Labour (MFL) warning it could disrupt more than a decade of peaceful labour relations in the province.

Under current Manitoba legislation, a union can be automatically certified by the Labour Board as the bargaining agent for a workplace if at least 65 per cent of employees sign a union card. A vote -- which must be held within a week of cards being collected -- will only be enforced if this threshold is not reached, and more than two-fifths of employees support unionization.

MFL president Kevin Rebeck, who was among nearly 100 union activists in the public gallery of the province's legislative assembly for the introduction of Bill 7 yesterday, said banning automatic or fast-track union certification would hurt Manitobans.

"When people have unions, they have a voice in the workplace, they are respected, they generally make more and get a fair share of the output of their work. This will put some more hurdles in the way of that," he said.

According to federal government research investigating union coverage in Canada's private sector, mandatory voting regimes have contributed to a steady decline in unionization rates. The research, commissioned by Stephen Harper's government and made public earlier this year by the federal Liberals, found that by 2008, nearly two-thirds of private sector employees worked in jurisdictions that enforced mandatory voting rules. In 1993, only 23 per cent of private sector workers fell into this group. Unionization data for 1997 to 2012 -- the time period of the research -- showed the number of employees represented by a union dropped from 23 per cent to 19 per cent.

The research estimated that if all Canadian jurisdictions had continued with card-check or automatic certification rules, the number of private sector employees would have actually increased in the from 1997 to 2012 by half a percentage point, instead of dropping by four points. 

Provinces with legislation currently allowing automatic certification are New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and Manitoba. Nova Scotia was the first to adopt a mandatory vote regime in 1977, and since then several provinces -- including Manitoba -- have switched between automatic certification and mandatory voting unionization rules.

Rebeck said another major concern about Bill 7 is its proposal to remove a clause protecting workers from "intimidation, fraud, coercion or threat" from employers during a unionization drive.

"There was no kind of sign that they were going to gut that language, and it actually feeds into our fear that this is about giving employers the opportunity to interfere in the vote and to intimidate, coerce or threaten workers who want to join unions," he said.

Prolonging the certification process through a vote also increased the likelihood of these types of intimidation tactics being employed. In addition to this, Rebeck highlighted figures from the labour board that showed less than a third of workplace certification votes had taken place within the allotted one-week time frame in instances when less than 65 per cent of workers had signed a union card.

"For many, many years now we've avoided major labour unrest. We have a good labour relations climate in Manitoba [and] there has not been a call for this from businesses" he said.

To raise awareness around the bill, the MFL launched a letter-writing campaign yesterday. The federation is also planning to meet with its affiliates, and register people to speak in opposition to the changes at the bill's second hearing.

"There is the potential that there will be fewer union contracts signed, which is bad for Manitobans," Rebeck said.


Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.

Photo: flickr/AJ Batac

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