Secret ballot voting, greater financial transparency empowers workers

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Appeared in the Globe and Mail, September 5, 2016

For many, Labour Day marks the end of summer vacation, when parents send the kids back to school. But it’s also a day rooted in the history of Canada’s labour movement, which makes it a good time to pause and reflect on a federal government bill (Bill C-4) currently being debated in Parliament.

Bill C-4 will end the requirement of a secret ballot vote for establishing unions and do away with federal financial disclosure rules for already established unions. While one of the early motivations of the labour movement was to empower workers, the harsh reality is that Bill C-4 works against that goal because 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 via secret ballot when deciding whether 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 actively considering switching to a mandatory secret ballot vote for union certification.

If passed, Bill C-4 would return to the old rules where unions can 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.)

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 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.

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 vote runs directly contrary to the goal of empowering workers.

But that’s not all. 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 currently on the books, although not enforced by the federal government, require all unions regardless of jurisdiction to publically disclose key financial information such as expenditures, revenues and their financial position. This disclosure makes it easier for unionized workers and interested third parties to gauge the financial health and operations of the union.

Like secret ballot voting for union certification, 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.

Labour Day is rooted in worker empowerment, yet Bill C-4 works against that worthy principle.

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