One of the changes introduced to Ontario labour law by the Mike Harris Conservative government in 1995 was mandatory ratification votes. Since part of the Harris government’s spin was that unions are untrusthworthy and corrupt, it made sense for the government to pass a law that said no collective agreement is valid unless and until successful ratification vote is held of the employees covered by the proposed collective agreement. This law does not always help employers. The new law now appears in Section 44 of the Labour Relations Act. It says this:
A proposed collective agreement that is entered into or memorandum of settlement that is concluded on or after the day on which this section comes into force has no effect until it is ratified
This means that even if an employer and the union’s bargaining team reach a deal on a new collective agreement, the employees can turn around and reject it. That is what happened this week in York Region, as the employees of Veolia Transit, which provides the transit system for parts of York Region, rejected the tentative collective agreement entered into by the union and the employer a few days earlier.
The employees must also “vote” to strike, since we also have mandatory strike votes. So the law now tests the wishes of the employees in the certification process, the strike process, and the collective bargaining stage. All of this legal intervention is supposed to ensure that the collective bargaining process is “democratic”.
I actually like the mandatory collective agreement ratification and strike vote requirements. To me, it removes the need for certification ballots, which are more troublesome given the tendency for employers to try to interfere in those votes by intimidating workers. In my mind, a fairer process for governing access to collective bargaining is the one used in the Federal sector and sought by President Obama, in which workers express their desire to be represented by a union by signing union membership cards (Card-Check). Concerns expressed by anti card-check groups about card-check being undemocratic fall apart once it is pointed out that all certification gets the union is a chance to bargain a collective agreement that a majority of workers will accept in a ratification vote. If you think that only ballots are democratic, fear not, the law still requires ratification and strike ballots. I made this argument a while back in the National Post. This is not a popular argument with employers and anti-union politicians though, because unions have more success organizing workers under a card-check system than a mandatory vote system, and workers might actually like what the union bargains.
Assuming that the Veolia workers have held their strike vote, a strike could now happen at any moment. The union will try to go back and bargain “more” before a strike starts. Is transit service in Vaughn and York Region “essential”, or is it just Toronto transit that is essential? If the workers strike, the Liberal government will be asked to explain that distinction.
Note, by the way, that Veolia is a private company that provides transit services across North America. The York Region government decided not to provide transit services itself, but to contract out this service, just as the City of Toronto is planning to contract out garbage collection. The point is that contracting out public services do not guarantee no strikes, notwithstanding Mayor Ford’s assurances otherwise