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It was the first week of June 2014, and the last week of the legislature's spring sitting. It was also the last session of the interim, caretaker premier. University was out for the summer, and all eyes were focused on the icebergs floating into Newfoundland and Labrador's picturesque bays and harbours.
It was at precisely this moment, barely a month before a new premier Frank Coleman was to take office (unelected: appointed by dint of the fact no one else ran for the job), that the governing Progressive Conservatives tabled surprise legislation, wiping out improvements to the province's Labour Relations Act that had been adopted following extensive consultation barely two years before.
The unexpected move sparked an outcry from the province's unions and the NDP. The surprise legislation was endorsed by the business community and passed with an unusual show of collaboration between governing PCs and opposition Liberals.
The provisions stripped away by the PCs dealt with the process by which a union can be formed. It restored an older mechanism that makes it more difficult for workers to form a union, taking aim at something that's been the target of business elites and their conservative political allies across the country.
Capitulating to big business
In the early days of Canada's post-World War II labour relations regime, there was a sense that establishing a union ought to be democratic: a majority of workers should indicate their desire to form a union.
One of the widely recognized methods of forming a union was through something called 'card-check certification'. Workers signed cards indicating they wanted to join a union; when a strong majority had signed cards, the union was recognized. It was a safe, confidential, democratic method of expressing the desire to form a union.
And, it worked... perhaps too well?
Employers and conservative politicians lobbied to make the unionization process more difficult -- often by adding a mandatory workplace vote in addition to card-signing. Critics of the vote process argued it allowed the employer time and space to intimidate, threaten and bribe workers not to support the union. Other technicalities -- such as requiring voter turnouts of up to 70 per cent - also made the process a difficult one.
In 1994 the provincial Liberal government of Clyde Wells -- notorious for its neoliberal austerity measures -- imposed on the province this double barrier to forming a union by requiring mandatory workplace votes in addition to card-signing.
The labour movement has lobbied ever since for a return to the card-check method of forming unions. In 2012 they got their wish: following consultation the PC government overhauled legislation and restored card-check certification. Until this year, whereupon government suddenly backtracked.
Too much democracy? Or too little?
Both sides have accused each other of putting up barriers to workers' democratic rights. Sharon Horan, chair of the St. John's Board of Trade, said in a recent press release:
The introduction of card-based certification was, quite simply, undemocratic due to the absence of a secret ballot vote…We commend government for this policy direction.
Mary Shortall, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, was quick to respond:
Democracy is not at play when employers intimidate, coerce, threaten and try to convince workers…It is not democratic to conduct a vote on the employers' premises, with the employer present, and having to put your secret ballot in a double envelope with your name on it.
She also argued the mandatory vote is undemocratic because when there's less than 70 per cent turnout, those who don't vote are counted as 'no' votes. Therefore, she said, employers can discourage workers from showing up for the vote, creating an environment in which those who do show up might be assumed to be union supporters.
She noted wryly that if these conditions existed in federal or provincial elections, legislatures would be empty today. The fact the province's incoming premier (sole candidate in an internal leadership selection process following the previous premier's resignation) was not democratically elected adds another layer of irony to the government's rhetoric around democracy, she said.
Critics have also argued that by launching these surprise amendments with no warning or consultation, government has undermined the democratic process by rejecting the stakeholder consultations of two years ago in favour of private consultation with business.
"Unions were shocked, and blind-sided," said Shortall. "It has been many years since labour was not consulted…about changes to labour legislation."
"They railroaded this piece of legislation through the House to limit debate, and therefore the broader public dialogue."
There have been other ominous signs of provincial backsliding on labour relations. Earlier this year, explained Shortall, big business announced it would stop participating in the Strategic Partnership -- a unique tripartite council bringing together labour, business and government -- in favour of lobbying government directly. Judging by the surprise June legislation, the strategy has worked well for employers.
With the legislature recessed for summer, there seems little prospect of reversing the changes for now.
The governing PCs are dealing with their own internal crises: on June 16 the incoming premier resigned before even taking office, leaving the province's future leadership in an unpredictable vacuum. An election is due to be held next year, but the fact that the opposition Liberals (who are leading in the polls) supported the regressive changes does not bode well for labour.
Nevertheless, Shortall says the province's workers will not forget this "Stephen Harper-like behaviour." And, given that Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest union density rate in the country, that could prove a formidable challenge to both parties.
"Labour will not forget what has just happened," said Shortall. "We will continue to challenge this and all regressive moves towards workers in this province -- we will not back down, and will continue our political action into the next election."
Hans Rollman is a graduate student (PhD in Gender, Feminist & Women's Studies) at York University and an editor and writer. He is a reporter and editor with the independent media site TheIndependent.ca, and has been published in a range of other publications including Briarpatch Magazine, Macleans On-Campus, Feral Feminisms and more.
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