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British Columbia’s NDP Should Act Now To Support Union Rights

Card check helps workers claim their rights by making union certification straightforward. British Columbia’s newly elected NDP majority government must bring card-check certification back to the province and help rebuild the power of workers.

Premier John Horgan addresses British Columbians on election night. (Flickr)

The reelection of the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) in British Columbia, this time as a majority government, has opened the door to substantial labor law reform in Canada’s third-most populous province.

In 2017, during the NDP’s previous three-year stint in power as a minority government, Green Party leader Andrew Weaver vowed not to allow card-check certification, even though it was an NDP campaign promise. The NDP depended on the votes of Green members of the BC legislature to pass any legislation and could not overcome Green Party intransigence.

This situation mirrored the complicated relationship between Green Parties and the Left around the world. Canadian Greens are no exception: despite the presence of eco-socialists in the party, the moniker of “neoliberals with wind farms” applied to some European Green Parties could fairly be slapped onto the BC Greens as well.

After the election result, the Greens can no longer frustrate the NDP in the provincial legislature. The election was seen as a referendum on the NDP’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the party won an overwhelming victory. It is precisely the conditions created by the pandemic and the challenges they pose for workers that make what happens in BC significant for workers and unions across Canada. The NDP, unencumbered by recalcitrant partners in the legislature, must demonstrate to the rest of the country how card check can improve the lives of working people.

Why Card Check Matters

Card check makes it easier to organize workers into a union. This is why unions and the Left support card check, while business and the Right do not.

In the Canadian model of labor relations, modeled on the Wagner Act in the United States, union organizers get employees in a workplace to sign union cards. In the case of card-check certification, if 55 to 65 percent of workers (depending on the province) in a proposed bargaining unit sign union cards, the union is certified. In cases where there is no card check, unions not only have to collect signatures, the workers then have to vote in a secret-ballot election to certify the union.

Despite legal protections against unfair labor practices, employers can engage in intimidation during the time between the signed cards being submitted to a labor board and the vote. While opponents of card check may sanctimoniously invoke democratic principles, card signing plus secret ballot ignores the reality of power dynamics in the workplace.

Of course, if the labor board is full of appointees from a right-wing government, successfully winning an unfair labor practice claim against an employer during an organizing drive becomes that much harder. Thus, it should be no surprise that BC business groups came together to call on the NDP to retain the secret ballot as reforms to provincial labor law were being debated in 2018.

The research on card-check certifications and other union-friendly labor laws in Canada is clear. When card check in BC was originally abolished in 1984, union certifications declined by 19 percent, while certifications rose by the same amount when it was restored in 1993. And as Quebec retains a 50 percent-plus-one card-check certification law, it remains Canada’s most unionized province at nearly 40 percent.

The political environment also matters. In Ontario, an NDP government brought in additional union-friendly legislation — like the banning of replacement workers — in 1993 while card check already existed in the province. Even in the aftermath of the early 1990s recession, which hit Ontario particularly hard, these changes caused union certifications to increase. When the Tories came to power in 1995 on an explicit platform of undoing NDP labor law reforms and card check itself, union certifications declined even before the new government could pass anti–card-check legislation.

A more recent example of the impact of labor law on union certifications can be seen in the province of Alberta. When the NDP came to power in Alberta in 2015 after forty-four years of Conservative rule, it set about modernizing labor law. In the year following the NDP reforms, union certifications more than doubled despite an economy weakened by a decline in oil prices. The United Conservative Party, which came to power in 2019, has since reversed many of the labor law reforms, including, tellingly, card check.

Nova Scotia’s government introduced the first secret ballot election legislation in 1977, during a period of economic crisis and labor militancy. Prior to that, card-check certification was common across Canada from the postwar period until the 1980s. On the surface, the introduction of mandatory elections — non–card-check union certification —  does not seem to have significantly harmed Canada’s unions, when Canadian unionization rates are compared to those in other countries. However, Canada’s 30 percent collective agreement coverage rate obscures the fact that, while more than 70 percent of the public sector is covered, coverage is declining in the private sector.

Holding the NDP’s Feet To the Fire

The Left expects the NDP to make big changes in BC. The previous minority government gave the NDP an excuse for not delivering on card check. But as Vyas Saran explains in the Tyee, the NDP has done a lot of things in power that cannot simply be explained away by reference to the difficulties of governing with a minority. This comes as no surprise: the NDP, at both federal and provincial levels, has been enfeebled by the party’s accommodation to neoliberal governance, much like other social-democratic parties around the world.

The NDP’s platform this time around lacks clarity on card check. The party claims it will make “sure every worker has the right to join a union and bargain for fair working conditions.” The platform itself heavily emphasizes government response to the pandemic. Like the Obama administration’s claim that the push for card check was abandoned so it could focus on health care reform, the NDP may use the imperative of managing COVID-19 as an excuse to avoid labor law reform, even though unions are vital to protecting essential workers’ health.

Of course, simply passing laws friendly to unions does not automatically rebuild a militant labor movement. Canada’s rulers decided to import the Wagner model of industrial relations in the 1940s precisely because they considered it to be a system that would reduce conflict, provide greater predictability for business, and make unions more “responsible” — that is, conservative — in their actions and outlook. The task of building fighting unions must come from below and will require patient and painstaking organizing over the long term.

Significant union growth has traditionally come in spurts during times of crisis like the Great Depression. The pandemic may in fact be preparing the ground for such a possibility. There has been an uptick in militancy from workers in Canada. Workers at Dominion grocery stores in Newfoundland have been on strike for nearly three months. And in Alberta, Canada’s most anti-union province, hospital support workers recently went on a wildcat strike to protest cuts to the health care system.

The time has never been riper for frontline — so-called essential — workers to join unions. The pandemic’s end is nowhere in sight, and workers absolutely should have their right to join a union made easier. That is why card check is so important. Its implementation in BC would send a message that would resonate across Canada. Ultimately, however, it will be up to workers themselves, not labor law, to transform the world.