Workers Make Less in Pro-union Provinces

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Appeared in the National Post, 02 September 2004
The United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union (UFCW), and many union activists across Canada, are celebrating their approved bid to represent Wal-Mart employees in Saguenay, Quebec and Weyburn, Saskatchewan. It’s likely that the UFCW chose Saskatchewan and Quebec as its battlegrounds based on the fact that these provinces have the most pro-union labour relation laws in all of North America.

Labour relations laws biased towards one group at the expense of another discourage economic activity, reduce business investment, lower employment growth, increase unemployment rates, and produce lower incomes for the majority of workers. Biased labour relations laws may benefit unions and their leadership but they sure don’t help ordinary workers.

Given the pro-union labour relations laws in these two provinces, it’s not surprising that they have under performing labour markets. In fact, workers are leaving Quebec and Saskatchewan in search of opportunities in more prosperous provinces. From 1996 to 2001, Saskatchewan lost 2.7 percent of its population to other provinces, the second worst record of out-migration among the provinces. More worrying is the profile of those leaving: the majority are young workers between the ages of 15 and 29 years. Over the same period, Quebec lost nearly 1 percent of its population to other provinces. If these trends are to be reversed, both provinces will have to strike more balance in their labour relations laws.

Saskatchewan and Quebec both maintain highly union-biased voting practices, known as certification and decertification. Neither province requires a secret ballot vote for employees to become unionized. Without a secret vote employees may be subjected to undue pressure from union organizers. In fact, that is precisely the allegation Wal-Mart employees are making against the UFCW in Saskatchewan.

Quebec and Saskatchewan also have certification thresholds that are lower than decertification thresholds making it easier for a union to gain bargaining power but more difficult for the same union to lose such power.

Unfortunately for workers in both provinces, the union-bias extends beyond simply making it easy for unions to become certified. For example, when labour disputes arise, unions in these provinces easily hold the balance of power. Both Saskatchewan and Quebec allow unions to picket secondary sites not covered by the collective agreement, such as suppliers and retailers of the unionized firm. This may force a company to give in to unreasonable union demands as pressure mounts from its suppliers and retailers.

Further, unions and employers are forced into binding arbitration when they fail to negotiate a solution to a dispute regarding the existing collective agreement; voluntary efforts such as mediation are not permitted. As a result, the selection of arbitrators and members of the labour relations boards are critically important as both have the potential to exert influence over the resolution of disputes. Consider this in light of comments made by Mr. Justice George Baynton of the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench, A dispassionate observer could well conclude that the impartiality of the [Labour Relations] board has been compromised. He further observed that the UFCW appears to be controlling Saskatchewan’s labour relations board.

Unions in both provinces have also managed to finesse labour relations laws to protect against technological and ownership changes. Technological change provisions require employers to notify the union in advance of introducing new equipment or machinery that might effect the collective agreement or employment. This is particularly damaging to workers as wages are strongly tied to productivity. Laws preventing or slowing down the introduction of new capital will slow the growth in worker productivity and ultimately make workers less prosperous. Successor rights force new business owners to abide by existing collective agreements when a business is sold, transferred or merged. This inhibits the reorganization of failing businesses and ultimately produces a less dynamic and prosperous economy.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, unions in Saskatchewan and Quebec, as in all other provinces, enjoy monopoly power. That is, in order to secure employment with a unionized firm, workers in one way or another are forced to join unions and support their activities through mandatory fees. In contrast, all U.S. workers enjoy choice with respect to both union membership and the payment of full union dues; workers in the U.S. are only obligated to pay union dues covering representation-related expenses.

In a world with increasing mobility, investment and workers migrate to jurisdictions that promote economic growth and offer greater opportunities. There is little wonder that both Saskatchewan and Quebec are losing workers and business investment to other provinces. A large part of this problem stems from labour relations laws that are biased towards unions. This Labour Day, workers in Saskatchewan and Quebec should rally to achieve better balance for workers and employers in their labour relations laws. Doing so will mean more jobs, lower unemployment, more business investment, and ultimately, higher incomes for workers.

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