Fraser Forum

Secret ballot vote for union certification empowers workers, promotes democratic principles

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Canada’s Senate may not always live up to its ideal of being the chamber of “sober second thought,” but from time to time Senators can contribute to better policy outcomes by getting their counterparts in the House of Commons to reconsider ill-conceived policies. A recent example of this is the Senate reportedly removing a provision from a federal government bill that would have been detrimental to workers by making the process of certifying a union less democratic.

In its original form, Bill-C4 will end the requirement of a secret ballot vote when workers are deciding whether to approve a union as their representative—a process referred to as “union certification. (The bill will also do away with federal financial disclosure rules for established unions yet the Senate unfortunately left this provision untouched.)

With the Senate’s proposed changes, the House of Commons must 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, then 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.

If the House of Commons rejects the Senate’s amendments and Bill C-4 is passed as it was previously 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.

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 contrary to the goals of empowering workers and promoting democratic principles, goals members of parliament should keep in mind as they consider the Senate’s amendments to Bill C-4.


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