05/07/2013 07:00 EDT | Updated 07/07/2013 05:12 EDT

BC Election 2013: NDP Will Make Union Certification Easier, Group Says

VANCOUVER - A business group in British Columbia says the labour movement is preparing its members for an NDP government that will change the law to make it far easier for workers to organize into unions.

"The NDP may have promised to consult on getting rid of a worker's democratic vote on whether or not to join a union, but at least one union seems to have inside knowledge that it's already a done deal," the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C. said in a news release Tuesday.

The group was sent a letter from Nightingale Electrical Ltd., a Richmond-based company, seeking advice on what to do after learning that pre-apprenticeship graduates it hired from the B.C. Institute of Technology had signed up for membership in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The letter said a union official "has been into every class and signed up all the students under the pretext that if they don't sign up now, they will never be let into the union."

The letter goes on to note that 75 per cent of the electrical industry is non-unionized.

But a spokesman for the post-secondary institution said neither labour nor business representatives visited the school to speak about certification.

"While guest speakers may attend classes to speak on items in the skills training curriculum, employers, union or non-union, are not invited to classrooms to speak with apprenticeship students," Dave Pinton, a spokesman at BCIT, said in a statement.

"It is not BCIT’s practice to have union cards signed in our classrooms.”

Currently, unions wanting workers to join must allow them to vote with a secret ballot, and also let them vote anonymously for or against union certification. That's why the students hired by Nightingale aren't already unionized.

But the independent contractors say that if the law changes and enough students have already signed the cards, they could automatically become union members.

The NDP's current election platform states the party will form a special panel, under the Labour Relations Code, that will recommend changes to allow workers to "freely exercise" their rights to join unions.

The platform says the panel will consult "interested parties" and recommend possible changes to the certification process, including what's known as the "card-check model."

Under the model, unions can certify once a previously determined percentage of employees sign union cards. There is no secret ballot.

Philip Hochstein, president of the independent contractors group, which represents non-unionized construction businesses, said the experience at Nightingale Electrical indicates unions have already begun work to train their organizers on how to approach workers in hopes of getting them to sign union cards.

"They have changed their approach on how to approach workers," he said in an interview.

He also alleged the NDP has made up its mind.

"They're going to stack the committee to ensure they get the outcome they want, so I don't think this is a fair and impartial approach," Hochstein said.

Doug Nightingale, president of the electrical company, said his company learned about the union's efforts while interviewing students. He said his company has hired about 100 apprentices and journeymen over the past six to eight months for 35 projects across the Lower Mainland.

"They're being misled with respect to what these cards mean and the relationship of the union in the industry," he said.

Nightingale said businesses should be given equal time in front of students, and he's concerned about the loss of a secret ballot.

"Just from a fairness point of view, a secret ballot seems to be a fairer way," he added. "I don't know why anyone would be against that."

A spokesman for the union was unavailable for comment.

Shane Simpson, the NDP's labour critic and candidate for Vancouver-Hastings, said his party has not made any decision on the issue. He declined to say whether he prefers the secret ballot or card-check model, calling the question "inappropriate."

He said that if elected, the NDP would probably call an industrial inquiry commission under an "eminent" independent individual or a panel of three, and then set a 90-day deadline for the individual or panel to report back with advice on certification and other issues related to collective agreements.

Simpson said the NDP would then deal with any recommendations.

"It would be incredibly inappropriate for somebody who might be the labour minister to be saying, 'Well, before I appoint this person to do this, here's what I hope they find,'" he said.

Simpson acknowledged the issue has come up during discussions between the NDP, labour and business organizations.

"There are unions who have talked to us. Obviously, there are unions that are very supportive of the card-check process. They have encouraged the card-check process.

"There are employer groups. I have met with a number of employer groups. Most of them, obviously, have been less enthusiastic about the card-check process. So I've heard from both sides."

Simpson said he suspects opponents of the NDP are trying to claim facts that don't exist.

The debate has long been controversial in B.C.

The labour movement has argued, historically, that the secret ballot makes it harder for workers to organize and allows strong-arm tactics from employers to dissuade employees from unionizing before any ballot.

However, business leaders say the card-check model fosters intimidation and only helps labour organizations improve their bottom lines.

The debate is not new to the province.

In 1992, the NDP government of the day abolished the secret ballot in favour of the card-check model. At the time, the card-check model allowed certification if 55 per cent of employees signed union cards.

When the Liberals seized power in 2001, the government changed the process back to the secret-ballot method.

Mark Thompson, professor emeritus of industrial relations at UBC's Sauder School of Business, said the card-check model was used federally and provincially until the 1990s, when some provinces adopted the U.S.-style secret ballot process.

Thompson said he predicts the NDP will change the system back to the card-check model if it forms government, but he doubts it will have much impact on union density, which is the proportion of unionized employees in the workforce.

He said unions did better in their certification efforts under the card-check model, but union density "barely budged."

"It was fairly flat for years," he said.

Thompson said he'd like to see an entirely different relationship, allowing employees to discuss issues with their employers, even if they didn't represent a majority.

"You don't start out with this kind of pitched-battle mentality," he said.

A recent poll released by the Coalition of BC Businesses found more than two-thirds of 600 randomly selected British Columbians support the secret-ballot process.

The Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of BC represents the province's open-shop construction sector and states it's responsible for 85 per cent of construction work in the province.

Nightingale Electrical was named by the Richmond Chamber of Commerce as Business of the Year in 2011 and has performed work for the University of British Columbia, IKEA, Canada Post and Wal-Mart.

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