A while back, I was surfing around looking for information about the upcoming provincial election in B.C. As a former B.C. labour lawyer myself, I have vivid recollections of the often hostile and polarized BC labour relations climate. So I was looking what labour law issues were being debated in the parties platforms. But there was very little. The governing Liberals seemed to say nothing, and even the NDP and the B.C. Federation of Labour didn’t appear to have labour law on their list of important issues. (Here’s a summary of the parties’ position on labour matters) This in a province that has been the home of some of the biggest labour law disputes in the past decade (i.e. the B.C. Health Services case). What the heck is going on?
So I wrote to a veteran of B.C. labour relations, Peter Cameron, labour arbitrator and mediator and former senior official within the B.C. labour movement, and asked him to explain the absence of labour relations law issues in B.C. politics. Here is his Peter’s guest blog:
The BC Election: the Amazing Disappearance of Labour Relations Issues
In past BC elections, labour relations issues have often been major focal points of campaigns, particularly when the NDP was in opposition. In the only two BC elections that resulted in the NDP moving from opposition to government (1972 and 1991), popular disapproval of the approach to labour relations of the free enterprise party of the day was a major factor in the defeat of the governing party. Public sector labour relations has also worked to the benefit of free enterprise parties on occasion (for example, for the Socreds in 1982).
In the most recent past election, although the Liberal Party retained government, labour relations issues were a partial reason for the party’s loss of 30 seats.
Thus far in the current election campaign, however, nobody (other than some striking paramedics) has raised labour relations issues. The 56-page platform of the NDP has only one two-sentence reference to labour relations matters: “We will respect free collective bargaining and encourage stable labour relations between employers, workers and the unions that represent them. We will not tear up legally-binding contracts as Gordon Campbell has done”.
Instead of labour law matters, the NDP and its union supporters have focused on an employment law issue – the minimum wage, now at $8 an hour and the lowest in Canada. The NDP proposes increasing it to $10. (The current $8 rate is the same as it was in 2001, when the rate was the highest in Canada.) The public sector unions have also raised issues of particular interest to them – mainly levels of public services and the resources to support them. But not labour relations issues.
To understand why this is the case requires a little background. In this election, the Liberal Party is seeking a third term. It first won election in 2001 – in an unprecedented sweep, winning 77 seats to two for the NDP. In the campaign leading to that election, the Liberals struck a conciliatory tone – pledging, for example, to respect signed collective agreements and to maintain most elements of the Labour Relations Code – including, to the surprise of many, the anti-strikebreaking provision.
(There were a few exceptions to the Liberal’s undertaking not to change the Code. The Liberals said they would require unions to win a vote, rather than relying on a card check, as a precondition of certification. The party also said it would add ‘educational services’ to the essential service / controlled strike regime. Both these, and some other less prominent changes, were enacted in the Liberal’s first term.)
The Liberals kept their promise with respect to the Labour Relations Code. But before long the new government became frustrated with disputes in the province’s public sector, and enacted a stream of emergency legislation that ended strikes and sometimes set the terms of collective agreements. There was little effective protest to these moves, which initially weren’t draconian. Emboldened, the Liberals moved to a more radical intervention, stripping important provisions from existing collective agreements in the health and social service sectors by enacting the Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act. This resulted in a broad public perception of unfairness, rumblings of a general strike, court action by the unions, and the establishment of union war chests to campaign in the subsequent provincial election.
The 2005 election resulted a major bounce-back for the NDP. Although the NDP fell well short of forming government, it increased its representation from two MLAs to 33 – a surprise of the wrong kind for the Liberals.
Despite the results of the election, the Liberal’s second term started out much as the first term ended. In October 2005, the government enacted emergency legislation that ended a threatened teachers’ strike and imposed a one-year contract extension. Despite the threatened strike’s illegality under the new legislation, it took place anyway. This lead to contempt proceedings against the union, fines, and a one-day labour protest (mainly supported by the other public sector unions). After 17 days, the strike ended with a mediated compromise.
Since that dispute, the government changed direction. In the last three years, it has largely made peace with the public sector unions.
- In early 2006, the Minister of Finance offered a significant signing bonus (almost $4,000 for each fulltime employee) for all those public sector unions that reached settlement before the expiry date of their collective agreements. Almost all of them settled – including the previously fractious teachers’ union.
- When the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a number of provisions of the Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act violated the constitution, the government amended the legislation, and reached a monetary settlement with the affected unions.
- Finally, not long before the writ was dropped, the government and health employers reached an apparently generous contract extension with the BC Nurses’ Union – tending to placate the union that has the most potential for effectively criticizing the government in the run-up to an election.
Not being the ultimate employer in the private sector, the government has had few issues with private sector unions. In any event, for unions in the private sector, their present preoccupation is the economy – not labour relations matters.
In short, the Liberals have few current problems with most of the labour movement, although some issues remain (notably, for the public sector unions, privatization). The Labour Relations Code doesn’t provide any compelling electoral issues for the unions or the NDP, because the Liberals have left the NDP’s Code pretty well intact, and the few changes it made (mainly in the first term) are not good election material. The second-term amendments to the Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act took away some of the ammunition for a potential attack on privatization in the health sector, where an attack might have had the most public credibility.
The result is that the NDP goes into the election a few bricks short of a good issue in an area that has worked well for it in the past.
Thanks Peter. It is interesting given the debates ongoing in the U.S. right now that neither the B.C. NDP nor the B.C. Federation of Labour have raised the possibility of returning to a card-check system of union certification that was in place until the current Liberal Party repealed it.
May 1 2009.