Vaughn Palmer: B.C. NDP’s ‘minor’ change to Labour Code actually a sneaky significant move

Opinion: The New Democrats are rewriting the Labour Code to reverse a decision by the independent labour board and doing so in the midst of a supposedly independent review of the Code itself

Vancouver Sun | Vaughn Palmer | Published Mar 14, 2024 

VICTORIA — Earlier this year, the New Democrats launched an independent review of the Labour Code, the provincial law governing strikes, lockouts, bargaining, organizing and the relationship between unions and employers.

“This review will help ensure B.C.’s labour laws keep up with the needs of today’s workplaces, provide stable labour relations and support people’s collective bargaining rights,” declared the Labour Ministry on Feb. 1.

A trio of experts, one representing unions, one the employers and a third from the arbitration and mediation sector, were appointed to consult interested parties and give recommendations to Labour Minister Harry Bains by May 31.

The appointment of the panel was embedded in a provision of the Code itself, requiring an independent review every five years.

After the last such panel reported out in 2018, the New Democrats brought in amendments that tipped the balance in favour of the unions on certifications, raids and contract-flipping.

No one would be surprised if a re-elected NDP government were to bring in more changes along those lines.

But the process that was announced Feb. 1 did allow a full airing of submissions and the panel’s recommendations for any changes in the Code before the election.

Then came a surprise.

On Monday of this week, the government introduced a Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Act.

These grab-bag bills are a regular feature of legislature sessions, containing what are said to be “minor housekeeping amendments” or other changes not worthy of stand-alone measures.

However, tucked inside the provisions of this Act was a significant change involving strikes and picketing, two of the most contentious parts of the Labour Code.

The change was crafted to reverse a decision by the independent labour relations board, which had ruled provincially regulated workers could not legally respect a picket line put up by their federal counterparts.

The New Democrats tried to play down the amendments as mere tinkering with the Code to clarify the right of provincial public servants to refuse to cross picket lines.

But the proposed change drew a swift and angry protest from the major employer organizations — the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Council of B.C. and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

“While proposed and packaged as a minor change, it is not,” they wrote in a letter to Bains released Wednesday.

“The change is far-reaching, and we are concerned that it could have significant economic and financial implications. We are concerned that the change will lead to more labour strife, impacting more of our economic base.”

The letter cited examples of how a picket line staged by striking federal workers could disrupt provincial government operations.

“Given the extent of federally regulated industries operating in British Columbia, the effect would be substantial,” they wrote. “Major sites where there are both provincially and federally regulated employees could be impacted.”

The examples were debatable.

But there was nothing hypothetical about the other part of the letter, which protested the decision to make the change in the Code while the Code itself was being reviewed.

The business leaders were not consulted about the change and now they were blindsided by it while they were still preparing their submissions to the independent panel.

“It is unclear what the urgency or public policy purpose is for the proposed legislative change,” wrote the business leaders. “There is no justification for proceeding with the bill before panel does its work and tables its final report.”

Then, in a direct challenge to the labour minister himself, they added: “Frankly, this calls into question the government’s intentions for the panel’s forthcoming findings, including whether you will receive them in an even-handed manner.”

“Meaningful change in the labour relations landscape in British Columbia must be grounded in transparency, inclusivity, and respect for procedural fairness, including not proposing legislation prior to the current panel deliberations and final report.”

They closed with a call for the New Democrats to put the amendments on hold and allow the panel to complete its work.

Not likely. The New Democrats are going full speed ahead on legislating the change.

Andrew Mercier, currently minister of state for sustainable forestry and formerly a legal counsel with the Teamsters, set the tone during second reading debate of the legislation Wednesday.

He began by describing the change as “an incredibly important amendment,” then later downplayed it as a “very minor amendment.”

His main point was that the change was non-negotiable as far as he and the New Democrats were concerned: “There is no right more fundamental or important to industrial relations and collective bargaining, in my view, than the right not to cross a picket line.”

Mercier dismissed as “laughable” the notion that the change could lead to major disruption of provincial government operations by striking federal workers.

In the circumstances, those assurances rang hollow.

The New Democrats are rewriting the Labour Code to reverse a decision by the independent labour board and doing so in the midst of a supposedly independent review of the Code itself.

There are many words to characterize such conduct. But fair, balanced and trustworthy aren’t among them.