By Charles Lammam
and Hugh MacIntyre
The Fraser Institute
Fast on the heels of Labour Day, rooted as it is in the history of Canada’s labour movement, is a good time to reflect on a federal government bill (Bill C-4) being debated in Parliament.
Bill C-4 will end the requirement of a secret-ballot vote for establishing unions. It will also do away with federal financial disclosure rules for established unions.
One of the early motivations of the labour movement was to empower workers, but the harsh reality is that Bill C-4 works against that goal. It makes the process of unionization less democratic and weakens the financial accountability of unions.
Under existing legislation, workers in federally-regulated industries (airlines, broadcasting, banking, etc.) are guaranteed the opportunity to vote anonymously when deciding to approve a union as their representative (referred to as “union certification”). Most provinces have a similar rule for provincially-regulated industries. Manitoba, one of the few exceptions, is considering switching to mandatory secret ballot for union certification.
If passed, Bill C-4 would return to the old rules where unions can bypass a secret ballot and automatically certify if they sign up 50 percent plus one worker through a “card check.” (A secret-ballot vote, however, would still take place if the union does not sign up sufficient number of workers.)
So why is forgoing a secret-ballot vote problematic? Because automatic union certification may not reflect the true desire of a majority of voting workers. Without the anonymity of a secret ballot, union organizers may pressure workers into supporting certification. Any dissension or disagreement can become confrontational, especially in cases where unionization is controversial. Even without outside pressure, some workers may be uncomfortable publicly voicing their opinion about unionization.
A mandatory secret-ballot certification vote provides the same basic protection of anonymity that all Canadians enjoy when electing politicians. Allowing unions to represent workers without approval via secret ballot runs contrary to the goal of empowering workers.
Bill C-4 would also make it more difficult for dues-paying workers to hold unions accountable once a union is certified.
The financial disclosure rules on the books, although not enforced by the federal government, require all unions to publicly disclose key information such as expenditures, revenues and their financial position. This makes it easier for unionized workers and interested third parties to gauge the financial health and operations of the union.
Like secret-ballot voting, current financial disclosure rules promote principles of anonymity, democracy and accountability. Indeed, research shows that increasing financial transparency contributes to improved governance and reduced corruption.
Moreover, current financial disclosure rules require unions to report details on how much money and time are spent on activities not related to worker representation, such as political and social causes. This is particularly important because unionized workers in Canada can be forced to pay full union dues as a condition of employment, even if they disagree with the causes the union supports. Requiring unions to disclose how money is spent at least allows workers to more easily (and anonymously) learn how much their union spends on such causes.
Events such as Labour Day are rooted in worker empowerment, yet Bill C-4 works against that worthy principle.
Charles Lammam is director of fiscal studies and Hugh MacIntyre is policy analyst at the Fraser Institute.