Business groups are pushing back against the Liberal government's first-contract legislation, a bill that won praise from several unions on Tuesday.

Labour leaders lined up at a session of the legislature's law amendments committee to praise the bill and suggest ways it could be made even stronger.

But the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said the Liberals have not demonstrated any rationale for the move.

"What are the facts and the information and the data that were used?" asked Louis Philippe Gauthier, the group's director of provincial affairs.

He said statistics show the number of labour disputes in the province has been dropping steadily since 1990.

"We have harmonious labour relations between the private sector and employees in the province at this point. Where is the need?"

Daniel Legere

Daniel Légère, the New Brunswick head of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, says bill will remove contention of a new union's right to exist. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

First-contract legislation would add an additional layer of mediation to a dispute when a union is trying to secure its first agreement with an employer.

Unions say without such a law, the employer can refuse to deal with a new union.

"It will remove from contention the union's right to exist, and bring the parties together to come to an agreement that both sides can live with," said Daniel Légère, the New Brunswick head of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

Law reduces disruptions, say unions

Lana Payne

Unifor's Atlantic representative Lana Payne says Unifor was a part of a labour-government steering committee that discussed labour issues. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Lana Payne, the Atlantic representative for Unifor, Canada's largest private-sector union, told MLAs that one study shows first-contract laws in other provinces have reduced private-sector strikes or lockouts by half during attempts to secure first agreements.

Payne and other union leaders were all challenged by Opposition Progressive Conservative MLA Stewart Fairgrieve about whether they had a hand in creating the Liberal legislation.

Payne said Unifor, which represents some hotel and restaurant staff in New Brunswick, had been part of a labour-government steering committee that discussed the legislation and other labour issues.

"I'm sure the government talks to all kinds of third parties on all kinds of matters at all times," Payne told Fairgrieve.

"I'm sure," Fairgrieve said. "One of the ones they apparently haven't spoken with is Restaurants Canada, the fourth-largest private-sector employer in this province."

Complained to premier

He said the organization wrote a letter to Premier Brian Gallant and all MLAs to complain it had not been consulted on the bill.

"Do you see that as fostering fairness and better relationships with regard to potential collective bargaining agreements?" he asked.

"I'm not here to speak for the government, I'm hear to speak for Unifor," Payne said, "and I would tell you that this legislation will do a decent job of starting collective bargaining processes and relationships in a good place."

Fairgrieve told reporters later that he didn't have a theory on why the Liberals were consulting unions but not business groups on the bill. He said he was just looking for an explanation.

Short notice

MLA Stewart Fairgrieve

Opposition Progressive Conservative MLA Stewart Fairgrieve says he was looking for an explanation for why some labour groups were part of the steering committee and some business groups weren't. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

He said some witnesses the PC opposition wanted to hear from weren't able to appear Tuesday because of the short notice of the hearing from the Liberal-controlled committee.

The law would not give unions and employers automatic access to a special first-contract mediator until after they had exhausted other normal arbitration processes and were still at a stalemate.

Either party could then make the request, but even then there would be a threshold for the extra process to kick in, including evidence that one side was unwilling to budge or that an employer was unwilling to recognize the union.

Sees too much power for unions

Unifor would like mediation to be available sooner but supports the legislation.

But Gauthier said the bill would give too much power to unions. He said if the Liberals move ahead with the bill, they should add a provision that union certification votes are by secret ballot — so workers don't feel pressure to vote yes.

"That would be one way government can counterbalance the decision that it's trying to put forward today," he said.

He said the Liberals were ignoring their own 2015 Regulatory Accountability and Reporting Act, which requires the government to issue reports on how it's reducing the regulatory burden on the province.

Gauthier called on the Liberals to explain why it was introducing the bill now.

"Release the information that was presented to cabinet, show us on what basis the decision was made, and until then, stop the process," he said.