Weaver is wrong about the secret ballot and union certification, says SFU professor

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      The Confidence and Supply Agreement released by the NDP and B.C. Greens states that “creating jobs, acting on climate change, and building a sustainable economy that works for everyone” are foundational goals that the two parties share.

      But SFU labour history professor Mark Leier told the Georgia Straight that bringing their disparate interests together is going to be a difficult tight rope to walk, especially when it comes to labour reform.

      In particular, B.C. Green party leader Andrew Weaver recently broke ranks with Premier-designate John Horgan over his plan to scrap the secret ballot required for workers to form a union. Horgan would replace this system with card-check certification, which rapidly speeds up the process.

      “I think that Andrew Weaver is deeply mistaken about the impact of the secret ballot and the card check,” said Leier.

      In Leier’s view, Weaver’s pro-secret-ballot position reflects an outdated understanding of union formation and power dynamics in the workplace.

      “Historically, people wanted secret ballots at parliamentary elections precisely to protect them from the bosses,” explained Leier. “It’s since then become something of a fetish or kind of a totem, you know, ‘people died for right to the secret ballot.’ But the ballot for unions is really different, because unions do not have anything like the kind of power that politicians and employers do.”

      Leier explained that since its introduction, the secret ballot has become a tool for employers to block the formation of unions by dragging out the certification process. This involves organizing workers, holding a government-supervised vote, and negotiating a contract in a process that can take several months. During the process, the employer can hold a decertification vote, which often results the dissolution of the union because of lengthy and frustrating negotiations—for example, when Squamish McDonald’s workers organized to form a union in the late 1990s, only to see it decertified after one year.

      Leier thinks Weaver (left) is taking a short-sighted view on the issue of card checks for union certification.
      Andrew Weaver

      Many people—including Weaver—believe that the secret ballot represents a pillar of democracy that protects workers from being pressured by unions. But Leier thinks the mythology surrounding the secret ballot practice has shifted power in favour of employers.

      “If employers really cared about democracy, they’d say, ‘Let’s let the workers run the industry and we’ll vote for the boss.’ They have no interest in democracy, what they are interested in doing is keeping unions out. And the single biggest, best way to keep a union out is to delay the process,” said Leier. “The nice thing about the card check is that people have signed up, they’ve paid a bit of money over, and they’ve already said ‘we want to do this.’”

      “Either Andrew Weaver is more to the right than people might think, or he really doesn’t get this as a principle,” Leier continued. “Certainly Weaver’s own history and his connections to the Liberal party make me think that he is more sympathetic to the business side of things—green business, but nonetheless.”

      Whatever the cause of Weaver’s anti-card check stance—he told reporters it comes from his time as a union member on the University of Victoria faculty association—the question remains as to whether his stance on this issue will impact Horgan’s ability to keep his promises as he steps into the role of premiere.

      Horgan gave a speech to the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union in mid-June, in which he discussed his plans for improving affordability and public services. But he made no mention of his previous plans to reform the Labour Relations Code and remove the secret ballot requirement.

      It’s unclear whether this omission was intended to appease Weaver during the early days of the alliance, but it does suggest that the two leaders have some difficult disputes ahead of them—especially when it comes to implementing “green jobs” while protecting the livelihoods of trade union members who depend on controversial projects like Site C.

      Leier pointed out that moving forward to protect the environment while also protecting jobs isn’t going to be easy, but it’s also far from impossible, provided that the two parties make an effort to talk to the people directly affected.

      “The irony is that working people have always been environmentalists even without necessarily belonging to the Green party,” said Leier. “The loggers that I know love the woods, and they don’t necessarily like clear-cutting them either. But it’s always that really hard choice: do I cut down this tree and feed my family, or do I let it grow for the spotted owl? Well, that’s a hard choice to make.”

      The formation of green industries will certainly take some innovation and compromise, but Leier is hopeful that the government’s precarious hold on power will force the NDP and Green parties to troubleshoot their clashing interests.

      “I am cautiously optimistic that for the most pragmatic of reasons—that is staying in power—that the Greens and the NDP will be creative, inclusive, and collaborative. And not just in the legislature but across the province,” said Leier. “It’s only by working through these things as communities that we’re going to get anywhere.”