Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Labour reform courtesy of the Alberta Enterprise Group

In December, the Alberta Enterprise Group released a report making recommendations about reforms in Alberta’s laws governing unionization and collective bargaining. In the next few posts, I will examine these recommendations in some detail. We’ll start with some basic background and discussion of AEG’s proposal regarding unionization votes.

Who is AEG?
AEG is a policy advocacy group that represents employers. It is funded by employers, its members are employers, its Board is populated by corporate big wigs and it clearly seeks public policy that advance the interests of corporate Alberta.

What does the AEG “study” recommend?
The “study” recommends altering Alberta’s labour laws. The proposed changes will make it more difficult for workers to form union, for unions to collect dues from members, and for unions to enforce worker rights. The proposed changes will also make it easier for employers to evade unions and the contracts they have signed with them through corporate maneuvering. How these recommendations jive with the AEG’s mandate to “promote policy fairness for all Albertans” is difficult to fathom.

How was the “study” conducted?
The “study” begins with a review of “the literature” about the effect of regulation of economic performance. In this case, “the literature” comprises eight studies which all support the unqualified conclusion that less regulation increases employment levels. This not a convincing or auspicious start.

The study then examines one aspect of Alberta’s regulatory framework: the laws governing unionization and collective bargaining. The “analysis” is thin and essentially regurgitates typical employer arguments in favour of American-style labour legislation. The study also contains the results of a telephone survey, which purport to support some of the conclusions advanced by AEG.

Unionization in Alberta
Workers who want to be represented by a union in Alberta typically sign petitions or buy membership cards. If 40% of the workers support the union’s application for certification, the Labour Relations Board (LRB) will conduct a vote of the workers. If greater than 50% of workers who vote support the union, the union is certified by the LRB and the employer must bargain with it.

AEG proposes several ways to make it harder for a union to be certified:

• unions must have 50% support to file an application (versus 40% now),
• the support must be a signed membership card with a $20 fee (versus signing a petition),
• at least 70% of eligible voters must vote (versus no quorum now), and
• employers must be able to argue against the union (which is precluded now) and have a minimum of three weeks to do so.

Many people will find these proposal not unreasonable. But let’s stop for a minute and consider why the rules (which are already the most employer-friendly in Canada) are what they are.

Threshold support
Unions must show at least 40% support among workers before applications are accepted to prevent spurious applications. Increasing the requirement to greater than 50% (an increase of 25%) will simply make it that much harder for workers to exercise their rights under the Labour Relations Code.

This difficulty will be compounded by doing away with petition evidence and requiring workers to drop $20 on a union membership card. There is no reason why workers ought to have to pay $20 each to exercise their right to have a vote except to discourage votes. There is hardly a flurry of spurious certification applications now.

This burden will be disproportionately felt by workers in low-wage jobs—those with perhaps the most to gain via unionization. Low-wage workers in Alberta are disproportionately immigrant, female and young. This hardly seems to “promote policy fairness for all Albertans.” Human rights complaint anyone?

Quorum and employer free speech
The proposal for a 70% quorum for votes to be valid is without merit. There is, for example, no minimum number of voters who must cast ballots in provincial or federal elections for those results to be valid. And those elections are much more important than a certification vote.

The reason for the 70% threshold is so create a further barrier to certification. When I worked at the Labour Board, I recall one employer sending two of his four employees out of town on the date of the vote so that (in his mind) it was not possible for a majority of the four-man unit to vote in favour of the union.

As it turned out, he should have read the current law more carefully (or at all). By requiring a majority of votes (not voters), the law precludes employer gerrymandering of elections. For this same reason, the current law limits employer “free speech” during certification drives.

This limitation reflects that there are important differences between political elections and certification votes. In a political election, free speech (theoretically) increases voter knowledge and has no coercive power. Workplaces are, however, not democracies. When the employer says “don’t vote for the union” or “the union will bankrupt us and you’ll lose your job” that information is both suspect and coercive. Instead, employers are told to let the workers make up their minds without being unduly influenced by the employer.

Why have votes at all?
An interesting question the AEG report side steps is why a union should have to show greater than 50% membership support and then face a vote? If the purpose of the AEG proposal is to ensure that a majority of workers wish to be represented by the union, surely the union should be automatically certified without a vote if more than 50% sign membership cards and give up $20.

AEG addresses this by suggesting union cards are not necessarily a good indicator of worker preferences (because workers might be pressured by the union to sign them). If cards are not a valid indicator of worker preferences, then why is AEG advocating using only signed cards as support for a membership application? And why is AEG advocating increasing the percentage of cards needed to start an application from 40% to 50%?

The answer is pretty obvious. Cards are harder to get than petition signatures, especially if you also need to get $20 out of a worker. And cards from 50% of the membership is harder to get than cards from 40%. So it will simply become harder to workers to get a vote and there will be fewer applications and fewer unionized workplaces. Again, this hardly seems to “promote policy fairness for all Albertans.” And it ignores that the purpose of the Labour Relations Code is to give workers a meaningful opportunity to exercise their rights.

Up next: Binding Arbitration

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