Unions, government duke it out on Bill 7
Dozens meet at Legislature to speak out against proposed bill to change how unions are formed
Union leaders from across the province met at the Manitoba Legislature Thursday for the latest in a heated, months-long battle against a government bill they say is an attack on workers.
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Bill 7, the proposed labour relations amendments act, makes good on Premier Brian Pallister's campaign promise to restore democracy to the workplace and end "forced unionization," but opponents say it opens the door for employers to intimidate and threaten workers out of forming a union.
"It has a long-term effect of them being fearful of ever participating in a union drive again, and that's not fair," said Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour. "This law just simply doesn't meet the test for fairness."
If it passes, Bill 7 would change how unions form to require a secret ballot vote every time workers try to organize, replacing of the long-standing card check system that allows potential unions to skip the vote and form automatically if 65 per cent of workers sign union cards.
The bill has drawn strong opposition from the start. When the government tabled the bill in June, more than 60 members of Unifor descended on the Legislature to protest it, chanting and shouting in the gallery.
Thursday was the first of three scheduled committee meetings on the bill, which passed second reading earlier this month. Nearly 50 people have signed up to address the Standing Committee on Social and Economic Development on the bill, and 20 of them spoke Thursday evening.
Of those 20 speakers, all but one were staunch union supporters, including heads from the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, the Winnipeg Labour Council, Manitoba's United Food and Commercial Workers and UNIFOR.
They said the bill will make it harder for workers to form unions, opening workers up to intimidation instead of the other way around.
Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, called the changes "concerning and confusing," saying there's no evidence of unions strong-arming workers into signing.
"This change appears to be trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist," Gawronsky said.
"The employer has a huge amount of power, because they control a person's livelihood. They control how we make our living. Allowing automatic certification, as is currently the law, helps to re-balance this relationship."
Cornerstone of democracy
Loren Remillard, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, spoke in support of the bill, calling the secret ballot vote "the cornerstone of democracy."
Remillard criticized the card check system as "neither fair nor balanced," and spoke in favour of the "inherent credibility" of the vote.
"Bill 7 ... returns Manitoba to a sensible, fair and respectful approach to this process," he said.
With a Progressive Conservative majority government, Rebeck said he thinks it's likely the bill will pass into law, but he hasn't given up on making a few changes.
At the meeting, Rebeck suggested three amendments to the bill: a requirement for the vote to take place within five days, instead of seven, of the union drive; codifying practices to allow the vote to take place at a mutually agreed-upon location, and giving the Labour Board more clout to discipline employers who intimidate workers.
"What we need to do is protect workers from being intimidated by employers," he said.
"What we need to do is have a process, [so] that when a super majority of workers say they don't feel respected in the workplace and they want to have a voice by joining a union, then they should have that right respected and supported."
The next committee meeting is slated for Nov. 1, with a potential follow-up on Nov. 3 if more time is needed.