When secret ballots are not democratic: sociologist weighs in on labour law

The Labour Relations Amendment Act would mandate secret ballot votes as the only means of union certification. Sounds fair, doesn’t it? Premier Brian Pallister is banking on Manitobans thinking so, Mark Hudson writes.

'It is an assault on unions, plain and simple, and will negatively affect all working Manitobans'

Secret ballot union certification votes can be influenced by employers, Mark Hudson argues. (CBC)

On June 15 the new Manitoba government introduced Bill 7, the Labour Relations Amendment Act, which aims to eliminate the so-called "card-check" system of union certification currently used in Manitoba. Bill 7 would mandate secret ballot votes as the only means of union certification.

Sounds fair, doesn't it?

Premier Brian Pallister is banking on Manitobans thinking so. The bill has been pitched as a means to make union certification more democratic — a clearer reflection of the will of workers.

It is, in fact, anything but. It is an assault on unions, plain and simple, and will negatively affect all working Manitobans.

Not everyone knows what card-check is, nor how union certification takes place under the existing Labour Relations Act. Under the current act, if 65 per cent of workers sign a union membership card, the Manitoba Labour Board, after ensuring that all other aspects of the law have been upheld, will certify the union as the official bargaining agent. If 40-65 per cent sign, then a secret ballot is needed to certify. So in cases where there is any ambiguity about the will of the workers — where the number of signed membership cards makes it a close call — we already have secret ballot votes.

Most demanding threshold

The 65 per cent threshold in Manitoba is the most demanding in the country among provinces that have card-check certification. It is a very clear expression of the will of a super-majority of workers. Bill 7 scraps the fast-track certification enabled by a 65 per cent card-check and forces all certification to take place through secret ballot votes.

The imposition of a secret ballot vote as the sole means of union certification certainly sounds fair and democratic. After all, don't we insist on the secret ballot for elections? Indeed. In a system in which we can all expect to cast our votes free from fraud, intimidation and coercion, secret ballots work well.

When most Canadians walk down the street to their polling station, they don't expect to be harassed or threatened into voting a particular way by anybody in authority. Nobody suggests they will lose their job if they vote for one candidate over another. When these kinds of things do happen in elections — even those with a secret ballot — we are quick to call the legitimacy of the process into question.

Unfortunately, workplaces aren't democratic. They are, in the words of Yanis Varoufakis, "tiny Soviet Unions." There is a rigid hierarchy of power stacked on the side of the employer. Employees can, in fact, expect to be intimidated and coerced by the only relevant authority present. We need not speculate on this. Just last year, to take one recent example, when workers at a Winnipeg Tim Hortons outlet started talking about unionization, their boss threatened to close the store or take away employee benefits.

The research on how the removal of card-check has played out in other Canadian provinces also shows the power of employers to intervene in certification. Several studies have shown that when card-check is replaced with mandatory votes, unionization rates suffer dramatically. For example, using a dataset of 6,500 private-sector unionization drives, labour researcher Chris Riddell concludes that when mandatory voting replaced card-check in 1984, success rates fell by 19 per cent. When card-check was reinstated in 1993, they bounced back by the same percentage. "The results indicate that the mandatory election law can account for virtually the entire decline. In addition, the findings suggest that management opposition was twice as effective under elections as under card-checks," according to Riddell.

Research from B.C. and Ontario also shows that the more time that elapses prior to a vote, during which employers can engage in a number of intimidation strategies, the less likely is eventual certification. If the government pushes this misguided bill into law, it must take strong measures to ensure that certification votes are held within a very short timeline. There are timelines in the law, but they are long (seven business days) and frequently extended by the Labour Board. Minimizing the room employers have to engage in the anti-union intimidation and coercion that mandatory voting laws encourage is an absolute minimum requirement.

Bad news for workers

Bill 7 is bad news for workers seeking to unionize and for all Manitobans concerned about justice and inequality. Unionization has a very clear empirical link to lower inequality. While many have focused on collective bargaining's impact on wage inequality, unions have been pivotal in winning social goods for all of us — including things like universal franchise, pensions and weekends.

"The political consequences of union power are difficult to exaggerate," political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson point out. "Social scientists have consistently shown that the strength of organized labour has a very large impact on the development of social policies across nations. Strong labour unions are closely associated with low levels of inequality and more generous social programs." In other words, union wins are, in the long run, wins for most of us.

Bill 7, while being advanced under the cloak of democracy, will have the result of further skewing an already imbalanced relationship of power that favours employers over workers. The fairness of a secret ballot election requires conditions that are absent in the context of union certification. Bill 7 will limit, not increase, workers' freedom to choose how they are represented in their workplace. Any other claim represents a profound distortion of how decisions are made on the job. 

Mark Hudson is an associate professor of sociology and co-ordinator of the global political economy program at the University of Manitoba. He is also a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Manitoba research associate and member of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Manitoba steering committee.


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