When logic and fact do not support your argument, use fear. It’s an approach that’s worked in elections and is being used to fight Bill 7, which would return secret-ballot voting for union certification to Manitoba.
Last week, Kevin Rebeck of the Manitoba Federation of Labour stated the current process "is in place in several jurisdictions across the country and is designed to prevent employers from interfering in the process through coercion or intimidation." By several jurisdictions, he is referring to four of the 10 provinces, including Manitoba. Rightfully omitted from Rebeck’s claim is any assertion the current process is designed to prevent organized labour from using coercion or intimidation.
Rebeck added, "Our new government is clearly signalling a new era of labour relations — one of imbalance, where the scales are tipped against workers being able to exercise their free and democratic right to join a union. That's not democracy."
What is democracy, then? If the secret ballot — long upheld as a fundamental pillar of a free and democratic society — is out, perhaps a rethink of democratic elections is in order.
Imagine for the next provincial election, instead of marking a ballot in a private booth, we assemble in our nearest community centres to elect our MLAs with a show of hands. Alternatively, we could have representatives of one political party show up at your house with a voting card and watch as you mark your choice.
I recall my entry into union membership. I had just joined the federal public service. During my first week, two gentlemen arrived at my cubicle one morning with a card that I was told to sign. I asked whether I had any options. Yes, I was told: sign now or sign before lunch.
According to Statistics Canada, over the last 30 years, the trend in Canada has been one of declining union density, to 28.8 per cent in 2014 from 37.6 per cent in 1981. This trend is being driven by employees themselves, who are moving beyond old-style labour relations that marked much of the 20th century.
Statistics Canada data for 2015 show of the 555,500 employees in Manitoba, 35.8 per cent (or 197,400) were members of a union; in 2010, 37.5 per cent (or 194,400) of Manitoba’s 517,800 employees belonged to a union. Union density remains highest in Manitoba’s public sector, wherein 78.4 per cent of all employees are represented by a union, as compared to 17.6 per cent in the private sector.
For a sizable and growing majority of Manitoba workers, the path to prosperity does not begin at a union hall. It is this fact that lay at the heart of organized labour opposition to secret-ballot certification.
Organized labour has long contended the current automatic certification system prevents employer intimidation and coercion. It offers, as proof of supposed employer malfeasance, statistics indicating a decline in certification success once secret ballots are introduced. Studies in Canada suggest the drop in certifications following the use of anonymous voting ranges from nine per cent to 19 per cent.
I offer an alternative theory: union certifications drop when secret-ballot voting is introduced because workers are afforded the best and rightful way to express their true desire, free of fear, intimidation and reprisal by any side.
Bill 7 seeks to restore a balance in Manitoba that was upset by Bill 44 more than 16 years ago. Rebeck contends automatic certification has created a balance, marked by a long period of relative labour peace in Manitoba.
While it is true Manitoba has experienced fewer work stoppages and days lost to strikes or lockouts in recent years, to attribute cause and effect to automatic certification is a tricky proposition. Each work stoppage in Manitoba since 2011 has involved unionized workplaces under provincial jurisdiction. How can we say higher union density creates labour harmony when every instance of disharmony involved unions and employers?
The time has come for Manitoba employees to once again have the right — free of intimidation or fear of reprisal from anyone — to make a clear choice between yes and no, rather than sign now or before lunch.
Loren Remillard is the incoming president and CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. This editorial first appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on June 21, 2016.