Canada’s new federal government campaigned on policies aimed at making labour laws fairer and more balanced, and the prime minister recently confirmed this commitment in his public mandate letter to the minister charged with the labour portfolio.
But the proposed labour policies will strengthen the power of unions while hurting workers because they will make the process for establishing unions less democratic and weaken the financial disclosure of established unions.
Current legislation requires workers in federally regulated industries to vote via secret ballot when certifying (approving) a union as their representative. The proposed reforms would return to the old rules where unions can bypass a secret ballot vote and automatically certify if they sign up a sufficient number of workers (50 per cent plus one).
The problem with forgoing a secret ballot vote is that automatic union certification may not reflect the true desire of a majority of voting workers. Without the anonymity of secret ballots, union organizers can pressure workers into signing up for unions. Any dissention or disagreement can become confrontational, especially in cases where unionization is controversial. Even without outside pressure, some workers may be uncomfortable publically voicing their opinion for or against unionization in the absence of secret ballot voting.
And under automatic certification, after a union has gathered sufficient support, there is no opportunity for further debate or discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of union representation. By contrast, a mandatory secret ballot vote sets aside a period of time for such a discourse with differing perspectives leading up to the vote, helping workers make a more informed decision.
Fortunately, most Canadian provinces guarantee workers the right to vote when forming a union via secret ballot in provincially regulated industries. Only Quebec, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island allow automatic certification (Ontario allows it only in the construction industry). Meanwhile, every jurisdiction in the United States requires secret ballot voting.
Retaining the requirement for secret ballot voting in federally regulated industries empowers workers to anonymously express their desire to have unions represent them or not, giving them the same basic protection enjoyed by all Canadians when electing politicians.
In cases where a union is already in place, current financial disclosure rules help make unions more accountable to dues-paying workers – something that has been traditionally lacking in Canada. The proposed reforms would return to this traditional status quo.
Although not yet fully in force, the current rules require all unions (regardless of jurisdiction) to publicly disclose key financial information such as expenditures, revenues, and their financial position. This disclosure makes it easier for unionized workers and interested third parties to gauge the financial health and operations of the union. Research shows that increasing financial transparency contributes to improved governance and reduced corruption.
The current rules also require unions to report details on how much money and time is spent on activities not related to worker representation such as political and social causes. This is particularly important because unionized workers can be forced to pay full union dues as a condition of employment, even if they disagree with the causes the union is funding. The requirement for unions to disclose how money is spent at least allows workers to more easily (and anonymously) find out how much their union spends on such causes – again, helping workers make more informed choices about union representation.
Existing government policies make the union approval process more democratic and improve the financial accountability of unions. Undoing these policies will make Canada’s labour laws less balanced, strengthening unions at the expense of workers.
By Charles Lammam & Hugh MacIntyre
Charles Lammam is director of fiscal studies and Hugh MacIntyre is a policy analyst at the Fraser Institute.