Business lobby cries wolf over Manitoba's labour law changes

August 1, 2000

Opposition to Bill 44's proposed changes to labour legislation, led by a handful of business lobbyists and echoed by Free Press editorials, takes two main lines: that the legislation will harm the province by driving business away, and that it is basically undemocratic. Even given the hostility to labour typically found on these pages, these are remarkably disingenuous arguments.

The central case against the proposed changes is that a vocal minority of Manitobans don't like them. That's it. If business doesn't get what it wants, it might take its toys and go somewhere else.

This line of attack, which was a veiled threat that didn't stay veiled for long, is irresponsibly based on fear and innuendo. We're told that business lobbyists have "met behind closed doors." That certain multinational corporations - unnamed, of course - are "nervous," and that others will not move here if this legislation is passed. And that "there have already been some nasty newspaper editorials" opposing the amendments in Conrad Black's National Post.

This is pretty dubious stuff - does anyone really believe that our elected government's should write legislation only in a way that will not upset Canada's most prominent right-wing ideologue? Or that the provincial economy will be sunk by some moderate improvements to labour legislation?

The answer can be found elsewhere in the Free Press, on the business page, where, lo and behold, we learn that the business community is far from unanimous in its opinion of Bill 44, and in fact, "mostly business people seem concerned with image" ("Big Biz Split on Labour Bill," July 26, 2000). In other words, the only real danger posed by Bill 44 is if its potential impact gets blown out of proportion.

The truth is that the proposed amendments are not at all unusual for Canada - after the Bill is passed into law, only four of eleven Canadian jurisdictions will require a second vote after a majority of workers have signed union cards -- and that they only partially undo legislation introduced by the Filmon government. The Tory changes (passed in two batches in 1996 and 1992) were designed to make it more difficult for workers to form unions and undermine trade union bargaining power.

Workers' right to form a union is recognized in law and in the Charter of Rights. Labour legislation should protect this right, not undermine it.

Most contentious of the NDP's proposed changes is the re-introduction of automatic card-based certification, under which, if 65% of employees sign a card stating that they want to join a union, the Labour Board can give them one automatically, with no second secret vote required.

From 1947 until the Tories killed it in 1996, some form of automatic certification process was the norm in Manitoba. For the better part of the past fifty years, through many changes in government, good economic times and bad, if a certain percentage of workers in a business indicated they wanted a union by signing a card, they got one. In fact, in 1996, the threshold was only 55%.

Requiring a vote in situations where a majority of employees have already indicated they wish to form a union simply creates a period of time in which they become vulnerable to harassment and intimidation from the employer. There are many, many examples of management creating an intense climate of fear by targeting certain for firing or layoffs, threatening to close the business, or reducing wages. This is the reason card-based certification came about in the first place.

The return to card-based certification at least takes us out of the nineteenth century, but the threshold is still too high. It should be 50% -plus one, the level used in four other provinces and the federal jurisdiction.

On the more basic question of democracy, it is crucial to keep in mind that unions are a mechanism by which the rule of law and a democratic process are injected into the workplace. Unionized workers elect their own representatives, and can and do kick them out if they are unhappy. A union provides a reasonable balance that keeps management from acting completely arbitrarily.

It is a fact of electoral democracy that government will do things that make some citizens upset. It is a sign of a healthy democracy when those who are upset make their case publicly and vigorously. But those Chicken Littles who claim that the sky is falling because of proposed labour law amendments should -- to mix fables -- remember the boy who cried wolf.

Remember the hysterical claims about what would happen if the NDP didn't cut taxes as severely as they wanted? Yet life has gone on, and the economy has continued to grow. Let's not lose perspective.