A secret ballot vote for union certification serves the interest of Canadian workers

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Appeared in National Newswatch, May 18, 2017
secret ballot vote for union certification serves the interest of Canadian workers

The Trudeau government and the Senate are clashing over Bill C-4, a bill that, among other things, is intended to change how workers decide whether or not to approve a union as their representative—a process known as “union certification.”

The Trudeau government introduced the bill back in 2016 with the aim of ending mandatory secret ballot voting as part of the union certification process. However, the Senate recently amended the bill to retain mandatory secret ballot voting, setting the stage for a potential standoff between the House of Commons and the Senate.

While the Senate does not always live up to its ideal of being the chamber of “sober second thought,” in this case it’s right to resist this anti-democratic element of the government’s bill. The next step is for the House of Commons to take another look at the bill and either reject or accept the Senate’s amendments. If members of Parliament want to empower workers and promote democratic principles, they should seriously consider the Senate’s changes and maintain the requirement for unions to be certified by a secret ballot vote.

Under existing legislation, workers in federally regulated industries (airlines, broadcasting, banking, etc.) are guaranteed the opportunity to vote anonymously via secret ballot when deciding whether to approve a union as their representative. Most provinces have a similar rule for provincially regulated industries. Manitoba, once one of the few exceptions, has recently switched to a mandatory secret ballot vote for union certification.

However, if the House rejects the Senate’s amendments and Bill C-4 is passed as originally drafted, unions will be able to bypass a secret ballot vote and automatically certify if they sign up a sufficient number of workers through so-called “card check”—50 per cent plus one. (A secret ballot vote, however, would still take place if the union does not sign up sufficient number of workers.)

Forgoing a secret ballot vote is 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 union certification. Any dissention or disagreement can become confrontational, especially in cases where unionization is controversial. Even without outside pressure, some workers may be uncomfortable publically voicing their opinion for or against unionization.

Crucially, a mandatory secret ballot certification vote provides the same basic protection of anonymity that all Canadians enjoy when electing politicians. Again, allowing unions to represent workers without approval via secret ballot runs contrary to the goals of empowering workers and promoting democratic principles.

By amending Bill-C4, the Senate has at the very least given MPs an opportunity to reconsider allowing card-check for union certification. If MPs want to ensure that workers are empowered, they should seize this opportunity and approve the changes made by the Senate.