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War of words erupts over secret ballot comment

Richard Gilbert

A B.C. labour leader is skeptical about a recent campaign launched by the local open shop contractors association, which defends the right of workers to vote on union membership, while attacking the New Democratic Party’s (NDP) position on certification.


“(Philip) Hochstein’s sudden facade of concern for workers’ democratic rights is tantamount to Colonel Saunders leading the vegan delegation at an animal rights conference,” said Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the B.C. Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council.

“It is completely disingenuous. He and the ICBA (Independent Contractors and Businesses Association) would have greater credibility if they represented themselves to the next government for what they truly believe, rather than pretend to be something they are not.”

As the electorate prepares to vote in the next provincial election on May 14, 2013, the ICBA president is accusing the NDP of having a plan to scrap the right of workers to a secret vote on union membership.

“The confidential vote is the foundation of democratic society,” he said.

“You go to the ballot box and mark your choice – a decision that is known by you and you alone,” Hochstein said.

“The changes being discussed by the NDP would strip that bedrock right from workers – and force them to declare their positions publicly.”

The political debate about union certification and the secret vote began with a statement made by new NDP labour critic Shane Simpson, during an interview with Province newspaper columnist Michael Smyth on local radio station CKNW.

According to a transcript of the Aug. 27 interview provided to the Journal of Commerce by the NDP, Smyth asked Simpson the following question: If the NDP win the next election, would you guys eliminate the secret ballot provision for certifying a union in B.C.?

“I’m meeting with Business Council officials next week, and we’re starting to talk about that piece,” said Simpson in response to the question.

“But, we’re also talking about workers’ compensation and employment standards and the whole thing as a package and what it looks like.”

From Smyth’s perspective, he said this means Simpson is deliberately refusing to answer questions about a critical election issue.

He concluded that the NDP will make it easier to certify a union and pass a package of pro-union labour laws, if they win the next election.

Hochstein agreed.

“The NDP may have the word democratic in their name – but their attack on secret ballot votes shows they place no value in democratic beliefs or the rights of individuals,” he said.

“If the NDP are being honest that this is just being discussed – they should stand up for democracy today and commit to British Columbians that the secret ballot is here to stay if they form government.”

In response, Sigurdson said Hochstein’s concerns are just dishonest rhetoric.

“Through their (ICBA) involvement with the B.C. Liberal Party, the changes to the B.C. Labour Code and the Labour Relations Board have made it very difficult for workers to unionize,” he said.

“There have been numerous occasions where well over 70 per cent of workers have signed union cards. But sometime between signing the union card and finally getting the opportunity to vote, the workers face harassment, intimidation and threats from their employers and the vote is lost.”

Union support is proven by producing membership cards signed and dated by employees in the proposed bargaining unit.

A vote is held once the union has evidence to show that at least 45 per cent of the employees are members in good standing.

The vote must take place within 10 days of the application for certification.

The short time frame minimizes the possibility of undue influence from the employer or the union.

The vote, which is held at the employer’s premises during working hours, is conducted by secret ballot.

According to Hochstein, getting rid of the secret ballot would remove a fundamental right from workers and strip away the advantages of the current system.

He argued that signing cards is open to public and peer pressure.

The card-check system is advocated by most unions in Canada, as it eliminates the requirement for secret ballot voting to approve a union as the sole and exclusive representative of workers.

Instead, unions are automatically certified if a majority of workers sign union membership cards.

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