Extend secret ballot voting to all Canadian workers when forming a union

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun

Pilots at WestJet recently voted to reject union representation, sparking renewed interest in labour relations laws in Canada. The vote means WestJet pilots will remain non-union in contrast to their counterparts at Air Canada, where in 2012 the airline became mired in labour disputes that ultimately hurt its bottom line.

But more importantly, the vote is one of the first high-profile drives to form a union under new federal rules requiring workers in federally regulated industries (including transportation and telecommunications) to use secret ballots.

Certifying a union is generally a two-step process. In the first step, the union must obtain the support of a minimum percentage of workers by signing them up as union members (or more rarely, having workers sign a petition). The second step is a certification vote.

Under the old federal rules, union certification was put to a secret ballot vote if the union signed up 35 per cent of workers for membership. A union could have bypassed a secret ballot vote and automatically certified if they signed up a sufficient percentage of workers (50 per cent plus one). Under the new rules, union representation must always be approved or rejected by workers anonymously via secret ballot, protecting them from any undue pressure.

The new rules apply to federally regulated industries; the provinces have their own set of labour relations laws regulating industries within their jurisdiction (including manufacturing and construction). Although mandatory secret ballot voting is increasingly the norm in Canada, a number of provinces—namely Quebec, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island—still do not provide workers with the protection that comes with requiring unions to be certified by an anonymous vote. (In Ontario, the construction industry remains the only industry where certification by secret ballot vote is not mandatory.)

Implementing a mandatory secret ballot in these provinces would give workers in provincially regulated industries the same right to vote on union certification anonymously as is now enjoyed by workers in federal industries and other provinces.

It’s crucial that union representation be approved via secret ballot because certification may otherwise not reflect the true desire of the majority of voting workers. Without the anonymity of secret ballots, union organizers can pressure workers into signing up for unions. 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 opinions in the absence of secret ballot voting.

A mandatory secret ballot vote also provides an opportunity for more debate and discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of union representation, helping workers make a more informed decision.

Interestingly, workers are less likely to choose unions when there’s no automatic certification and when decisions are made through secret ballot voting. Academic research has shown that union drives are more often successful if they can be automatically certified without a vote. For example, one study found that union-drive success rates fell by 19 percentage points after mandatory voting was introduced in British Columbia. Another Canadian study found that, between 1978 and 1996, union-drive success rates were approximately nine percentage points higher in provinces with automatic certification.

The mandatory secret ballot vote at WestJet allowed the pilots to reject union representation under the same protection Canadians enjoy when electing their politicians. It’s time that workers in every province are guaranteed the same right to vote for—or against—union certification in a secret ballot.

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