Last week the NDP government introduced the Fair and Family-Friendly Workplaces Act (Bill 17). It’s intended to update workplace legislation that became increasingly outdated under Progressive Conservative rule.
Premier Notley describes Bill 17 as a balanced middle of the road approach. The Opposition is says it’s a “union-friendly omnibus bill” that should be split in two to prevent the government from “sneaking labour in with everything else.”
Is Bill 17 a unicorn or a chimera? A force for good or a monster?
Bill 17 changes the employer/employee relationship in six areas:
- Family-friendly leave: Most provinces have between 10 and 14 forms of job-protected leaves. Alberta has four—maternity, paternity, reservist, and 8-week compassionate care. The bill aligns eligibility for leave with more generous eligibilities provided by the feds and adds new unpaid leaves to support victims of domestic violence, those suffering short term illness, caring for sick children, bereavement, the disappearance of a child and attending citizenship ceremonies.
- Youth employment is aligned with international labour conventions which set the minimum age for children doing light work, but won’t impact children performing chores, babysitting or involved in 4H.
- Workplace standards changes will address banked overtime, hours of work, rest periods, compressed work weeks, vacation and holiday pay, minimum disability pay, and minimum termination notices.
- Administrative penalties will be toughened up for employers who violate the law.
- Labour relations changes require an employer and newly formed union to go to arbitration if they can’t reach an agreement within 90 days and (here’s the tricky part) if more than 65% of eligible employees sign a certification card, they’re be unionized without the need for a vote, unless the Labour Relations Board deems a vote is required.
- Changes to the agricultural sector will give “waged, nonfamily workers the same rights as their peers in other sectors” subject to some exemptions.
An Omnibus Bill
Horrors! say the Opposition. It’s an omnibus bill in the worst tradition of he-who-tabled-monster-budget bills that included everything from finance and budgets to veterans’ benefits, anti-terrorism measures and changes to the Fisheries Act.
Leaving aside their hypocrisy, they’re just plain wrong.
Bill 17 focuses on the relationship between an employer and an employee, one on one or as part of a group. That’s it. The difficulty for the Opposition is that both aspects of this relationship appear in the same bill—the Opposition will have to be very careful when they explain to their constituents why they voted against it.
Card-based vs ballot-based certification
The heart of the controversy swirls around the elimination of the vote by secret ballot if 65% plus one of the employees (a supermajority) sign certification cards.
Under the existing legislation if 40% or more of the employees signed certification cards, the Board will conduct a vote. If the majority of the employees vote for the union, they’ll be unionized. This is called “ballot-based certification”.
Under Bill 17, if 40% to 65% of the employees sign certification cards nothing changes. The Board conducts a vote and if the majority votes for the union, they’re unionized.
However, if more than 65% of the employees sign certification cards that’s it, they’re unionized. There is no vote unless the Board has some concerns in which case it will conduct a vote. This is called “card-based certification”.
The ballot-based certification requires a majority (50% plus one), the card-based certification requires a supermajority (65% plus one).
What’s the problem?
The elimination of the secret ballot in the case of a supermajority is driving the Opposition bonkers.
PC MLA Ric McIver made an impassioned, if incoherent, argument that in the months that elapse between employees signing their certification cards and Board accepting them, everyone will know who is pro-union and who is anti-union, thus leaving them open to intimidation from the company and the union.
This is bizarre argument because the old system also requires employees to sign certification cards; if McIver is concerned that everyone will know who is pro- or anti-union based on their certification cards, then the threat of intimidation exists today.
It will be unchanged if the certification tally results in 45% to 65% signing up for a union because the old system still applies.
It will diminish if the certification tally results in more than 65% signing up for a union because they’ll be automatically unionized. They won’t to wait for weeks or months for the ballot to be scheduled.
The Opposition argues Bill 17 is a blow to democracy because the cards aren’t secret but the ballots are.
True, secret ballots are a hallmark of democracy, but companies are not democratic institutions. They’re hierarchical institutions with power (continued employment, increased pay, and benefits) concentrated in the hands of the employer.
The blow to democracy argument is a red-herring.
The real issue
Labour researchers like Chris Riddell say management is twice as effective at opposing ballot-based certification—what we have today and will continue to have where 40% to 65% of the employees sign certification cards—than card-based certification as proposed by Bill 17 where 65% plus one employees sign up a union card.
Introducing card-based certification, even one requiring a supermajority, may make it easier for employees to unionize. But this isn’t necessarily a given.
A wise CEO who’s rebuffed many unionization drives said the best way to keep your employees from unionizing is to treat them well.
Is Bill 17 a unicorn or a chimera? It’s neither, it’s simply good business practice.