Reforming Labour Laws: There’s a Lot on the line

 

Ontario’s labour laws are set for review this year and there is a lot on the line.

It has been 20 years since labour laws were re-opened in Ontario and that was under a Mike Harris government, when many of the gains made during the province’s first-ever NDP government were rolled back.

Today there is new hope. The Wynne government has bent to pressure from the labour movement, sustained media attention to the growing trend towards precarious work and the ensuing public outcry.

This year, the Ontario government appointed two Special Advisors to head up a “Changing Workplaces Review.” C. Michael Mitchell and the Honourable John C. Murray released a discussion paper in May and, on June 16, they launched public consultations that will take them to 10 communities around the province this summer (see below for the full list).

There can be little doubt that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change Ontario’s outmoded labour laws to lift employment standards for every worker and provide easier access to unionization and the protections it affords.

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) has responded by bringing together a big table of affiliates, progressive economists, labour-side lawyers and community allies to analyze the existing gaps in labour law and the impact on the people who are falling through them. All of this in an effort to develop a clear vision that is shared across the labour movement and to put forward a comprehensive set of policy proposals that can restore the balance to labour relations in Ontario and ensure that having a job will always be a pathway out of poverty.

History has shown that when workers act collectively in their workplace they can improve their wages and working conditions. Such collective action has resulted in critical improvements in health and safety standards for workers and for decent wages and benefits.

The OFL is proposing a series of improvements to the Labour Relations Act that would eliminate the barriers to unionization, prevent employer intimidation and harassment during an organizing drive, help secure collective agreements and resolve disputes and maintain union protection in the workplace.

Key among the OFL’s recommendations are:

1. Card-Based Union Certification

At one time, a worker’s signature on a union membership card was legal proof of that person wanted to join a union. Now, a worker must sign a card and also participate in a balloted vote before they have the protection of a union, so the employer has multiple opportunities to target them.

 

This was a measure imposed by Premier Mike Harris in the mid-1990s. It’s time to do away with the Mike Harris era and restore card-based union certification.

The OFL is recommending that workers be allowed to vote only once to join a union by signing a union card. When a majority of workers have done so, the union should be certified.

2. Early Disclosure of Employee Lists

Closely related to card check certification is the early disclosure of employee lists by the employer.

Unifor, the union, had to withdraw its application to hold a certification vote at Toyota’s plants in Woodstock and Cambridge last year when the company disclosed it had 1000 more employees that Unifor had not known about and hadn’t accounted for.

The province should ensure that both sides have access to the same information. Provincially, if a candidate is running with a registered political party, then a mere 25 signatures is a sufficient threshold for the release of the entire voters list for that riding.

The OFL is recommending that a threshold of 20 percent of employees expressing interest in joining a union be established to trigger the release of a voters/employee list the neutral Ontario Labour Relations Board, in accordance with existing legislation regarding freedom of information and protection of privacy.

3. Neutral and Off-Site Voting, Including Telephone and Electronic Voting

If a workplace vote is held, a ballot box placed outside a supervisor’s office, or in a location that is not sufficiently neutral, can have the effect of discouraging employees from freely expressing their will.

The OFL is recommending that any workplace vote should take place in neutral locations, with the legal right to use telephone or online voting as determined by the employees and their union representatives.

4. Interest Arbitration for a First Contract

Once workers have democratically decided for collective representation to improve their working conditions, they should rightly expect such a process to end with a contract. Far too often, workers who have finally certified with a union find themselves bargaining with an employer who is still resisting the process.

Measures exist in other jurisdictions where either party may apply for arbitration if, after a set period of time, a collective agreement has not been settled.

The OFL is recommending that Ontario should adopt measures that provide additional routes to binding arbitration to secure a first contract.

5. Reinstatement Following an Organizing Drive

The law should prevent any employer from firing, reprimanding, intimidating or harassing employees who work to organize their co-workers to join a union.

I know of a hotel worker, named Ignacio, who was reprimanded by his employer for distributing union information, even though he was on a break. There are thousands of people like Ignacio who are unfairly punished for exercising freedom of speech and freedom of association, with the sole purpose of putting a chill on collective worker action.

We need to change labour laws to ensure that workers are shielded from employer intimidation while they freely discuss, deliberate, and then decide on union membership.

The OFL is recommending that workers who are disciplined, discharged or discriminated against because they were exercising their rights under the Labour Relations Act during an organizing drive, must be immediately reinstated to their original terms and conditions pending the outcome of a hearing on the merits of the discipline imposed on such workers, as requested by the union.

6. Successor Rights for the Contract Services Sector

None of the changes outlined above will provide the intended support to workers if union membership can be easily terminated or reversed simply because the employer is changed in a given workplace.

No where are workers more vulnerable than in the contract service sector. Take, as an example, the truly appalling situation of contract food service workers at the University of Toronto. Two workers, both of whom are members of the same union and do the same work, have very different wages, benefits and job security simply because one works directly for the university, while the other works for a sub-contractor.

One employee, named Raymond, who has worked for two and a half years in a kitchen run by the University and is paid $17.94 an hour and his kids are eligible to attend the University for free.  Across campus, Valerie, who has worked in another kitchen for 15 years, serving the same food to the same students, earns only $14.55 an hour and has very limited benefits.

As an employee of a sub-contractor, Valerie is a precarious worker, who’s job can disappear if her company loses the next bid to keep the contract. Even if the next company to operate the cafeteria decides to hire her back, they would not have to honour her collective agreement. In Valerie’s words, “It feels like we are running, just to stand still.”

The OFL is recommending that successor rights must be extended to workers in the contract services sector, who are at risk of losing all collective agreement protections when contracts are re-tendered.

7. Anti-Scab Rules

By far, the majority of collective agreements are negotiated without labour disruptions. However, the actions of some employers result in strikes by unionized workers in order to achieve a fair contract. The use of replacement workers, or “scabs,” undermines the collective bargaining process and unfairly weakens unions’ ability to bring about a negotiated resolution.

The use of scabs and replacement workers prolongs labour disputes and escalates tensions.

Removing the ability of employers to use scabs or replacement workers to grind down striking workers results in smoother labour relations and shorter disputes with less risk to everyone involved.

At Crown Holdings, which is Canada’s leading manufacturer of aluminum cans, the workers have been on strike for more than 21 months because the profitable company demanded that wages be cut by 42 percent for all new hires. Instead of bargaining a fair deal with its long-time employees, Crown began busing in scabs and made increasingly worse offers to the union. Now Crown is insisting that even if an agreement is found, it intends to keep all the replacement workers and allow only about 25 percent of the strikers to return to work. Everyone else would be fired without cause or left in limbo.

Québec and British Columbia have anti-scab laws today and the results are clear. The year after B.C. changed its Labour Code, the province realized a 50 percent drop in the amount of work-time lost to strikes. The number of work days lost each year in Québec due to labour disputes is about half of the national average.

The OFL is recommending that the use of replacement workers be prohibited during strike and lockouts.

8. Revamping the Employment Standards Act

However, the Ontario Federation of Labour isn’t limiting its attention to changes to the Labour Relations Act, it is also working with the Workers’ Action Centre to champion changes to Employment Standards Act that would raise the floor for every worker in Ontario. Under the banner of “$15 and Fairness,” the labour movement is advocating for a $15 an hour minimum wage, paid sick days, increased vacation pay, an end to split shifts, equal treatment for temp agency workers and various other changes that would put an end to precarious work.

Schedule of Public Consultation Meetings

Any Ontarian concerned about workers’ rights and fair labour practices should learn more about the government’s “Changing Workplaces Review” and register to make a presentation during one of the public consultations:

  • Toronto: Jun. 16, from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. at Marriott Downtown Eaton Centre Hotel (525 Bay St.)
  • Ottawa: Jun. 18, from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. at Courtyard Ottawa Downtown (350 Dalhousie St.)
  • Mississauga: Jun. 24, from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. at Courtyard Toronto by Marriott  (7015 Century Ave.)
  • Guelph: Jun. 25, from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. at OMAFRA (1 Stone Rd. W.)
  • Windsor: Jul. 7, from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. at Holiday Inn  (1855 Huron Church Rd.)
  • London: Jul. 8, from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. at Station Park All Suite Hotel  (242 Pall Mall St.)
  • Sudbury: Jul. 23, from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. at a Venue TBD
  • Hamilton: Sep. 10, from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. at a Venue TBD
  • Thunder Bay: Sep. 16, from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. at a Venue TBD
  • Toronto: Sep. 18, from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. at a Venue TBD

For information about the review and to register for public consultations, visit: http://www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/about/workplace/consultation.php

For information about the proposals being put forward by the Ontario Federation of Labour, visit: www.ofl.ca/index.php/campaigns/LabourLawReform

In solidarity,

Sid Ryan
OFL President

 

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