Horgan government eyes labour law change that would further stifle investment in B.C.

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Appeared in Business in Vancouver, January 18, 2021
Horgan government eyes labour law change that would further stifle investment in B.C.

British Columbia, like the rest of the country, must encourage business investment to spur economic growth as the foundation for economic recovery now and post-COVID. With its recent majority mandate, however, the Horgan government seems intent on resurrecting extreme pro-union legislation that will discourage investment and recovery.

A recent analysis of business investment in B.C. found that the province underperformed compared to other provinces in attracting investment outside the residential housing sector. Indeed, the most recent available data from Statistics Canada indicates that B.C. ranked 5th among provinces in average business investment (again, excluding residential housing) between 2015 and 2019 on a per-worker basis (after adjusting for inflation).

And the province’s comparatively inhospitable labour laws are part of the problem. B.C. has a long history of favouring unions over individual workers and employers. Indeed, a comprehensive analysis of labour laws in 2014 covering the Canadian provinces, federal government and the U.S. states, ranked B.C. 4th worst in terms of balanced labour laws.

Despite the province’s already biased labour laws, the Horgan government seems poised to introduce even more radical laws including so-called “card check” for the certification of unions.

Currently, unions require 45 per cent of workers to sign union cards to trigger a secret ballot vote to certify the union as the exclusive bargaining representative of workers in any firm. Card check eliminates the need for a secret ballot vote—a hallmark of our democratic decision-making process—if 50 per cent plus one of workers sign union cards.

Card check clearly violates basic democratic norms. Workers who do not support unionization can be subject to intimidation and harassment because their preference is publicly known. This is why virtually all elections in modern democracies are held by secret ballot, protecting individual privacy.

This is also borne out by B.C.’s previous experiment with card check during the NDP’s last reign in the 1990s (the province reverted back to secret ballot voting in 2001). Research showed that unionization rates were 19 percentage points lower under the secret ballot system. In other words, when employees were afforded the choice of a private anonymous vote, their support for unionization was markedly lower than under card check.

Indeed, an expert panel convened by the Horgan government to advise the provincial labour minister on labour law reforms explicitly rejected card check. The majority of the panel supported retaining the secret ballot system, explaining that it’s “the most consistent with democratic norms.”

Crucially, however, B.C. is already a labour law outlier. For example, it’s one of only two jurisdictions in North America to prohibit temporary workers during strikes. Clearly, the province’s laws already tilt the balance profoundly in favour of unions at the expense of individual workers and employers, which creates a competitive disadvantage when trying to attract business investment and entrepreneurship.

At a time when B.C. badly needs investment to help strengthen the economy, adopting “card check” is hard to justify given its likely economic impacts. The province should maintain its secret ballot system of union certification and focus on becoming more attractive to business investment and entrepreneurs.