It's either an attack on workers' rights or an effort to enshrine them.

A new government bill designed to change the rules about how workers form unions passed its second reading this week. While Tories say it will make the process more democratic, opponents argue it's a concealed attempt to throw obstacles in the path of organized labour.

Bill 7, the Labour Relations Amendment Act, would do away with the long-standing card check system in Manitoba, which allowed unions to form automatically if a super-majority -- 65 per cent -- of workers sign union cards.

Instead, the new rules would require all potential unions to hold a secret ballot vote, which supporters say will protect workers from coercion.

Brian Pallister - June 15, 2016

Premier Brian Pallister says Bill 7 would protect workers. (CBC)

"I think our workers in Manitoba deserve to have the protection it offers, from coercion, from intimidation, from follow-up bullying as a consequence of whether they voted one way or another," said Premier Brian Pallister. 

"I think the workers own the right to that ballot, and they own the right to decide whether they publicly disclose how they voted or not," he said.

Critics of the bill point to research that shows successful attempts to unionize drop when the card check system is eliminated, but Pallister said if it happens here, it might be a good thing.

When the Tories presented the bill in legislature earlier this summer, more than 60 Unifor members descended on the gallery to protest the changes.

At the time, Pallister said the comments they shouted from the wings were an example of the strong-arming he was trying to legislate against.

"Perhaps if the number of unions that form is slightly lower, it would be understandable, because it would be the result of what the workers really wanted and not of persuasion or peer pressure of any kind," he said.

"I think that's a better process, and I think it gives greater legitimacy and strength to unions formed in that manner."

Attack on labour, NDP says

Tom Lindsey

NDP MLA Tom Lindsey (Flin Flon) spoke against Bill 7 in the house this week.

Opponents of the bill say it opens workers up to intimidation, instead of the other way around.

"The whole point of this bill is it will make it more difficult for workers to organize into a union," said NDP MLA Tom Lindsey. "That in itself is an attack on organized labour."

"It's an attack on workers, because as it becomes more difficult for them to organize it then becomes more difficult for them to have a voice, to have their rights protected," he said.

Lindsey dismissed the PC argument that the card check system allows union supporters to strong-arm workers, and said employer intimidation is the real threat.

"What is the union going to threaten people with? They can't threaten to fire them. They can't threaten to lay them off. They can't threaten to cut their benefits," he said.

While unions don't have that power, employers do, he said, and some use it to their advantage.

Lindsey spent more than five hours arguing against the bill in legislature this week, and said the bill will make it harder for people who really need protection to get it.

"It will make it harder for new Canadians," he said. "It will make it harder for new people entering the workforce to have the protections and really have the opportunity to better themselves that other people that have previously organized have had."

Hypocritical bill, says prof

David Camfield, an associate professor of labour studies and sociology at the University of Manitoba, said the bill would negatively impact workers.

​"It's clearly an attack on workers' rights," Camfield said.

Beyond doing away with the card check system, the bill also repeals part of the Labour Relations Act that allows unions to form even if employers have complaints about who is and isn't a member — for instance, if a low-level manager wants to join and the employer disagrees.

That opens the door for employers to use those complaints to indefinitely stall unionization, or wait until union supporters leave the workplace, he said.

If passed, Camfield said the rules would lead to a drop in successful attempts to unionize in the province.

He said the argument the law would protect democracy in the workplace is "hypocritical" and misleading.

"It's a red herring to somehow make a comparison between the process of workers certifying a union and holding elections for the legislature, because the relationship of workers to their employer is not the same as the relationship of citizens to the electoral process," he said.

"I think we should raise questions about the sincerity of claims by the PCs or by employer organizations to be concerned about workplace democracy."

Bill 7 was introduced in legislature on June 15, and passed its second reading this week. It's on its way to committee now, and could make its way there as early as next week.