Should BC revert back to the card-check procedure for certifying unions? No.

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The ability of workers to collectively organize is a fundamental right, which has been rightly recognized by Canada's Constitution. The question is not whether workers should be able to gain and maintain collective representation but rather what is the best and most balanced method by which workers decide who should represent them. At its core, the process must protect the ability of workers to make informed, self-interested decisions. Reverting to a card-check system to certify a union fails to achieve this by inordinately biasing the process in favour of unions at the expense of workers and employers.

The card-check system is advocated by most unions in Canada. Such a system 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.

The card-check system has a number of serious problems. First, card-checks are inherently confrontational. Union organizers and workers wanting union representation are able to go to the homes of other workers, approach them in the parking lot or other public places in order to persuade them to sign union membership cards. If a worker decides not to sign a membership card, there is nothing stopping union organizers from repeatedly approaching them. Clearly, card-checks can subject workers to direct potential pressure from co-workers and unions.

Another problem borne out of the confrontational nature of the card-check system is that it can create hostilities between workers in a company. Given that individual decisions are known by all workers, card-checks often create conflict between co-workers who must ultimately work together after a union certification drive commences.

The dissemination of information is yet another problem associated with the card-check system. Under card-checks many employers only become aware of unionization campaigns once they are virtually complete and as a result the union is often the only source of information for workers. This violates a core tenet of making informed decisions, which is that workers have access to a full range of information regarding the effects of their decision. Having only one side of an argument obviously impedes making an informed decision.

Supporters of card-checks argue, however, the ability of employers to communicate with workers during unionization campaigns leaves workers subject to intimidation. They argue that employers can threaten employees with job cuts and the possibility of shutting down their companies if the union drive is successful. The reality however, is that workers are protected under the Labour Relations Code against unfair labour practices including threats of dismissal, wage decreases, or the alteration of any conditions of employment.

Perhaps most importantly, the outcome of the card check system does not seem to reflect worker preferences regarding union representation. This is evidenced by the fact that when workers are given the right to vote for union representation using a secret ballot, they choose collective representation much less often.

Interestingly, British Columbia has been a laboratory on this issue. Secret ballot voting to certify a union was first introduced in 1984 and then eliminated in 1993 by the NDP government. Professor Chris Riddell of Queen’s University examined the effect of these changes and found that unionization success rates fell by 19 percentage points in BC after secret-ballots were introduced in 1984 and increased by about the same amount when card-checks were reintroduced in 1993. In other words, when workers had the ability to vote for unions in a secret ballot, the success rate for union certification declined and when this right was removed, union success rates increased.

These results have been corroborated by a number of other academic studies. The research has consistently shown that when workers are afforded the opportunity to make private, anonymous decisions through secret ballot voting, the result is lower levels of union certification.

In 2001, BC’s newly elected government restored mandatory secret ballot voting for certifying unions. While unions wish to resurrect automatic certification through card-checks, secret ballot votes are a superior mechanism by which to allow workers to make such an important decision. Critically, a secret ballot voting system allows workers to obtain information regarding the benefits and costs of union representation and affords them the privacy of a voting booth to confidentially express their preferences. Reverting to a card-check system would be a significant setback for workers.

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