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Amazon’s Direct Line to Doug Ford Reminiscent of Mike Harris’s 1990s Lovefest With Walmart

You have to hand it to Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford.  At least he is open about how he gives special privileged access to giant American corporations.  Some politicians might be concerned that voters would look askew at private backroom dealing with special corporate interests.  But not Doug Ford.  This week, Ford bragged at a press conference how Amazon has “direct access” to his Conservative government and can bypass “bureaucrats” and call up Ford directly to get things taken care of.  The American giant, well known for being vehemently anti-union (see here and here and here), announced it was expanding into Toronto and would be hiring 600 tech workers.

The Premier’s granting of a special direct line to a giant anti-union American corporation reminded me of a time, early in my legal career, when I worked on a case involving a Walmart store in Windsor.  This turned out to be quite a famous case in Canadian labour law, one that is taught in labour law classes across the country.  But at the time, it was just another organizing campaign at a hostile, antiunion American retail company, not unlike the campaign underway right now to organize some hundreds of Amazon drivers in Toronto.  Already the union in that campaign has alleged that Amazon is engaged in unlawful resistance tactics.

Recalling Wal-Mart’s Direct Line to the Mike Harris Government

In the 1997 Windsor case, Walmart committed several violations of the Labour Relations Act, including leading workers to believe that the store might be closed if workers voted to unionize.  The Labour Board ruled that,  because of this threat, the results of a failed certification vote were tainted.  It was impossible to know whether the workers supported collective bargaining because the employer’s illegal actions had changed the question in the minds of the employees from “do you wish to be represented by a union?” to “do you want to retain your employment?”.

Back then the Act included Section 11, which was known as the “remedial certification” section.  This section empowered the Board to certify a union, even if it lost a certification vote, when the employer’s illegal conduct made it impossible to hold a fair, untainted vote.  This law presumed that there was no point holding a new vote if the employees still believed that they could lose their jobs if the union wins.  Remedial certification was rarely ordered, but was widely believed to act as a strong deterrent to dissuade employers from making unlawful threats during organizing campaigns. It was not much of a surprise to the labour relations community when the Labour Board ordered remedial certification in the Walmart case.  It was understood that an employer cannot make threats to job security and expect to escape remedial certification.  The Windsor store became the first unionized Walmart in the world in 1997.

However, Walmart did not accept this outcome.  It believed that regardless of its threats, the union should still be required to win a vote.  So exploiting their direct line to the Harris Conservatives, Wal-Mart demanded an end to remedial certification.  Within months of the OLRB decision certifying the Steelworkers at Walmart, the Harris government enacted Bill 31, which had the typical Conservative double-speak title “Economic Development and Workplace Democracy Act”.  Bill 31 became known in the community and at the legislature as the “Wall-Mart Bill”.

There were great debates in the legislature about the Wal-Mart Bill.  NDP MPP Peter Kormos in particular attacked the cozy relationship between the Conservatives’ and Wal-Mart:

KormosPeter Kormos:  “I condemn a government that has put itself in a position where it’s so beholden to Wal-Mart, surely the most anti-worker, anti-union employer on this continent. I condemn a government so beholden to Wal-Mart, based down there somewhere in the United States of America, that it would effectively deny those workers, those men and women working in Wal-Mart for the lowest of wages, for the poorest of benefits, for the poorest of pensions, and in the case of benefits and pensions, if any, I condemn a government so beholden to Wal-Mart that it would turn its back on those working women and men and deny them the right to join a trade union….  This government was … so deep in the back pockets of Wal-Mart that it’s spitting out lint.”

Spitting out lint.  Great stuff!

The Wal-Mart Bill repealed “remedial certification” and replaced it with a watered down remedial power limiting the Board to ordering a new vote if an employer committed a serious unfair labour practice that tainted a certification  vote.  Under the Tories’ Wal-Mart Bill, even if an employer hired violent gang members to wander freely around the workplace threatening the lives of employees and their families if they voted for the union, all that the Labour Board could do is order a vote.

This is exactly what happened in the infamous 2001 Baron Metal case, decided under the Wal-Mart Bill.  Realizing that the Board could not certify the union unless the union won a vote, Baron Metal set out to ensure the union would never win by bringing in violent thugs to terrorize the workers.  After the union lost the certification vote, the Labour Board ordered a new vote and to the surprise of no one, the union lost again.  Success for Baron Metal, Walmart, and the Tories!

A Familiar Story?  What will be in the “Amazon Bill”?

The McGuinty Liberals restored remedial certification once they took power in 2003, and you can find it in Section 9.2 of the current Labour Relations Act.  However, it would not surprise me if remedial certification is once again in the sight-lines of the Conservatives, along with other statutory protections for collective bargaining, as I have noted before.

We can only speculate what Amazon and Doug Ford talked about when Amazon bypassed “the bureaucrats” and called Dougie directly.  But given that unions are already organizing Amazon’s Ontario workers, would it surprise anyone if labour laws came up in this conversation?  Would it surprise anyone if Amazon applauded Doug for his recent decision to repeal labour protections enacted by the Liberals?  Maybe Amazon was even consulted beforehand in one of these chats with the Premier.  There’s no way for voters to know what is discussed in these conversations.

Would it surprise anyone if one day soon we are talking about the “Amazon Amendments” to labour relations laws in Ontario?

 

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