As the provincial government prepares to unveil what are anticipated to be significant reforms to the regulation of Ontario’s workplaces through its Changing Workplaces review, a backbench initiative to revamp construction trade union certification has been quietly withdrawn in unusual circumstances.
Bill 83, the Fairness in Labour Relations Act, was launched in 2016 as a private member’s bill by Progressive Conservative MPP Jim McDonell (Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry) and passed first reading on Dec. 6, 2016.
Sources analyzing the effect of the bill indicated it would have replaced the card-signature method of certifying construction unions in favour of a workplace vote.
It would have also required the Ontario Labour Relations Board to hold a hearing when determining whether to direct a union representation vote and stripped construction unions of the right to strike in some circumstances, among other measures.
Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn said in an interview the bill "would clearly reduce the rights of a union to organize" and that he attempted to call Leader of the Opposition Patrick Brown on the matter when he responded to Brown’s question on an unrelated union issue during question period May 9.
"The Conservatives are not known to be that friendly with organized labour. Sometimes they are, sometimes they are not," said Flynn. "We thought that was probably the position of the Conservative Party being reflected in a private member’s bill." Brown’s party was "trying to have it both ways," Flynn said, noting Brown was purporting to support the cause of Toronto’s Amalgamated Transit Union and had attended last fall’s Provincial Building Trades convention.
According to Hansard, Brown asked, "Mr. Speaker, when will this government stick up for our Ontario and Canadian union members against foreign-backed attack? Will they help? Will they stand up? Yes or no?"
Flynn responded in part, "This is coming from a party that on the order docket in this House has a private member’s bill that wants to ban card-based certification in the province of Ontario. They stand up here and try to lecture us on labour relations? The member should be ashamed of himself."
The MPP in the centre of the controversy has gone quiet. Responses to inquiries to McDonell’s office indicated he was out of the country for two weeks and would take questions upon his return. The spokesperson said McDonell explained his decision to pull the bill as follows: "I’ve withdrawn the legislation in question after careful consideration and advice from colleagues."
An inquiry to Brown’s office asked for the Opposition Leader’s interpretation of events and whether Brown had indeed forced McDonell to withdraw Bill 83, which was Flynn’s assertion.
"We will let MPP McDonell’s comments stand as it is his legislation," wrote Nicholas Bergamini, Brown’s press secretary.
A summary of Bill 83 prepared by the Ontario General Contractors Association (OGCA) indicated, in part, "This bill, if passed, would amend the Labour Relations Act, 1995 to remove the requirement to provide a written description of the proposed bargaining unit in an application for certification. At present, employees in the construction industry are exempt from certain restrictions in section 79 of the Act against striking. The bill removes that exemption."
A spokesperson for the OGCA said the association had no involvement in Bill 83.
The Ontario Chamber of Commerce wrote to Premier Kathleen Wynne on May 15 urging the government not to make major changes to labour laws that would hurt Ontario’s economy. In one published comment, a chamber executive said expanding card-based certification to other sectors was unadvisable.
The open-shop advocacy organization Merit Ontario said in an email it had no involvement in supporting Bill 83. Merit executive director Michael Gallardo wrote, "Merit Ontario has a long-standing practice of not being in favour of the card check (card-based certification) process, and supports secret ballot voting that allows for all employees to have a voice and vote on whether their workplace should be represented by a particular union."
Flynn said the trade union certification system is working well in Ontario and does not require reform.
"One of the most peaceful areas is organizing and collective bargaining in construction," he said. "The last thing we need is to cause dissent or instability in the construction industry. That’s what this bill would do."