VICTORIA — The momentum has shifted towards the labour movement in British Columbia with changes announced in provincial labour laws Tuesday.
New Democrat Labour Minister Harry Bains said the proposed changes to B.C.’s Labour Relations Code aim to ensure stronger protection of collective bargaining rights and promote more durable labour relations between employers and unions.
B.C.’s labour code was established in 1973 and hasn’t undergone a major public review in almost three decades, he told a news conference after introducing legislation.
“The (amendments) help to restore fairness and stability to the unionized labour environment because, quite simply, the laws were outdated,” said Bains. “They haven’t kept pace and haven’t had a thorough and comprehensive review since 1992.”
Under the amended labour code, public education will be removed as a designated essential service, he said.
“B.C. became the only province to specifically include education in its essential service provisions,” Bains said. “That’s unreasonable and unfair. We are committed to building a new relationship with teachers based on respect and trust.”
He said the former Liberal government had an ongoing war with B.C.’s public teachers that saw the Supreme Court of Canada rule in 2015 in favour of teachers and their rights to bargain contracts.
“That government had an agenda,” Bains said. “It was not to protect the workers and their health and safety and (the Liberals) were, I think, serving their masters.”
The government said the B.C. teachers union would still have meet a test through the provincial labour board in order to take strike action.
The labour changes are based on a report by a three-member panel appointed last year that made 29 recommendations. The panel included labour and business representatives.
Union contracts will also be protected under the changes, giving successorship protection to service contracts re-tendered by employers in janitorial, security, transportation, food and non-clinical health services, said Bains.
Jennifer Whiteside, the Hospital Employees Union secretary-business manager, said protecting union contracts in the service sector will improve health care delivery where direct care and support services have been undermined by privatization and contracting out.
The union said the practice of contract-flipping in health care has resulted in entire care teams being fired from nursing homes.
“These are real game changers that will fundamentally improve working conditions for our members,” she said.
Secret ballots votes for union certifications will be retained, but the Labour Relations Board will have broader discretion to impose union certification if an employer is found to have interfered in the process, he said.
Ken Peacock, B.C. Business Council chief economist, said retaining the secret ballot provisions ensures “some balance in the labour code.”
He said the business council has concerns that granting successorship rights to union contracts in the service sector will diminish competition and result in higher costs over time.
Bains said he didn’t agree with the panel’s recommendation to support secret ballot certification votes, but conceded his minority government’s partners in the Green party were adamant in their backing of secret ballots.
“If I was proceeding with a majority government that would have been my preference,” he said.
Green Leader Andrew Weaver said the government’s support of the secret ballot achieves balance in the workplace while protecting the rights of workers to exercise choice.
Opposition Liberal labour critic John Martin said he was pleased the government plans to keep secret ballot provisions in the code.
“It’s a good day for workers and democracy,” he said, adding other parts of the proposed amendments are vague and will face debate in the legislature.
Laird Cronk, the B.C. Federation of Labour president, said the proposed changes are positive steps forward for workers after the pro-business approach of the former government.
He said protecting the rights of workers to negotiate contracts is “one of the greatest poverty reduction tools we have in this country.”
The labour code changes follow Monday’s tabling of amendments to B.C.’s employment standards to protect children on the job, workers fleeing domestic violence and ensure that service workers are entitled to keep their tips.