The newly elected Progressive Conservative government in Manitoba has moved quickly to cement its anti-worker bona fides with the radical right-wing by making it more difficult for non-union workers to join a union, and by opening up bidding on large scale public construction projects to non-union companies. Changes in these areas were announced in the Pallister government’s Speech from the Throne on May 16.
Under the current system in Manitoba, a union can be automatically certified by the Labour Board if 65% of the workers in a proposed bargaining unit indicate their support by signing membership cards. As in other jurisdictions with a “card check” system, signed membership cards are subject to independent scrutiny.
Card check was the norm in Canada until some 20 years ago. The principle was that it is up to workers whether or not to join a union and that they should not have to demonstrate their choice in favour of a union through a vote in which employer opposition to unionization is much more effective.
University of British Columbia economist Chris Riddell examined the impact of moving from card based certification to a vote in British Columbia, which has moved back and forth between the two systems. He found that the union success rate fell by 20% under the voting system, and that management opposition to unionization became twice as effective.
Labour lawyers and labour rights experts see the shift from card based certification in many provinces, notably Ontario and British Columbia, as a major factor behind the decline of union membership since the high point of the early 1980s.
Between 1981 and 2012, the unionization rate in Canada fell from 38% to 30%, with most of that decline being experienced in the private sector of the economy where the unionization rate is now just over 16% or one in six workers.
Over that period, the decline in the unionization rate in Manitoba was the lowest of any province, down three percentage points of the paid workforce compared to a national average of eight percentage points. Manitoba has consistently had a card check system until now.
The two provinces with the highest unionization rates, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, with unionization rates of 40% and 39% respectively, have also consistently had a card check system. Manitoba stands in third place in terms of the unionization rate.
The current Manitoba system is not especially union friendly. The threshold for card check is, at 65%, much higher than the simple majority of 50% needed in Quebec and the federal jurisdiction (where the move to a vote by the Harper government is being reversed.)
Studies by the Broadbent Institute and others have shown that declining unionization is very closely linked to rising income inequality. That is because unionization tends to raise the pay of workers who would otherwise be lower paid and to reduce discriminatory pay differences, including between women and men. Unions also provide an effective means to access basic rights at work.
These gains from unionization do not come at the price of weaker job creation or worse economic growth. Manitoba, for example, has generally had a below average unemployment rate due in part to a stable labour relations system which has benefited employers as well as workers.
The attack on workers’ rights by the Pallister government owes everything to right-wing ideology, and nothing to any problems with the current means of certifying trade unions.
Photo: wader. Used under a Creative Commons license.