Vaughn Palmer: B.C. picks fight with its own lawyers over unionization

“Bill-5 forces most of the government’s in-house lawyers into a union they did not choose and prevents them from forming the one they do want,” says B.C. Government Lawyers Association president Gareth Morley.

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VICTORIA — The B.C. New Democrats last week introduced a brief piece of legislation on bargaining rights in the public sector while saying little about the implications for the government’s relationship with its own lawyers.

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“This bill amends the Public Service Labour Relations Act to implement collective bargaining rights for government lawyers,” said Finance Minister Katrine Conroy announcing Bill-5.

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She made it sound like the government was giving something to the lawyers.

Rather, it was taking something away. That became readily apparent with the release of a statement from the B.C. Government Lawyers Association (BCGLA), representing more than 300 lawyers providing advice, drafting and other legal services to government.

“Bill-5 forces most of the government’s in-house lawyers into a union they did not choose and prevents them from forming the one they do want,” said association president Gareth Morley.

The union they “did not choose” was the Professional Employees Association (PEA), representing foresters, engineers, geoscientists and other professionals in the public service. Bill-5 effectively leaves government lawyers with the PEA as their only option for joining a union.

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The union they “do want” is the BCGLA, which was spearheading a drive to get itself recognized by the Labour Relations Board as the bargaining agent for the lawyers.

Ironically, the lawyers’ association sought certification under NDP legislation, enacted in 2021, that made it easier for workers to unionize.

In the method known as card check, employees signal their intention to join a union by signing a card. If 55 per cent sign, there is no need for a certification vote. Some 70 per cent of the lawyers signed cards. The application was already in process before the board when the New Democrats moved to pre-empt it with Bill-5.

“The reason for this legislation is that the government thought it might lose at the Labour Relations Board and the BCGLA would be certified under the Labour Code,” argued Morley.

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“No employer in the province could do what the provincial government is doing,” he continued. “But the NDP government wants to rewrite the rules in the middle of the game.”

The NDP’s high-handedness has the lawyers threatening job action if Bill-5 is enacted.

It also drew a blast this week from the B.C. Federation of Labour.

“The B.C. Federation of Labour is disappointed that government has chosen this path instead of letting the board complete its work,” said president Sussanne Skidmore.

“It is important to protect the rights of working people to join or form a union of their choosing.”

In agreement was the B.C. Crown Counsel Association, representing Crown prosecutors.

“No employer should have the right to assign any group of employees to a union that it selects. There’s no independence in that,” said association Vice-President Adam Dalrymple.

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“The issues (the lawyers) face are unique and cannot be adequately managed by a union representing employees of several different disciplines and job categories.”

As to the NDP’s reasons for proceeding in this fashion, there’s a clue in the portfolio of the cabinet minister who introduced Bill-5.

It was not Labour Minister Harry Bains, the trade union stalwart who usually presides over changes in labour law. Bains brought in the card check legislation last year.

Nor was it Attorney-General Niki Sharma. She might have handled legislation that could limit the right to collective bargaining, recognized in provincial law and by the courts.

Instead, Bill-5 is the progeny of the minister of finance in her capacity as minister in charge of public-sector bargaining.

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Conroy defended the bill as a way to “ensure government maintains an appropriate public service bargaining framework that promotes continued labour stability and controls future costs.”

B.C. has almost 200 recognized public-sector bargaining agents of one kind or another. Hard to believe that the addition of one more would disrupt either the bargaining framework or labour stability.

So, the key to Bill-5 is the government wish to control costs.

The government would prefer to confine the lawyers to the PEA, where their concerns could be swamped in the competing priorities of a larger group of professionals.

If the lawyers got their own stand-alone union, they would have more leverage to seek better wages and benefits.

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There is also a slippery slope concern: If the lawyers get their own union, other public-sector workers could seek to go it alone as well.

“Whatever you think of unions,” says Morley of the lawyers’ association, “it has to concern every British Columbian about the power of a government that wants its own way — even if it goes against the rule of law or its own principles.“

At the same time as this saga is unfolding, the New Democrats stand accused of trying to freeze out Indigenous-owned contractors from work on the replacement project for the Cowichan District Hospital. The contractors balked at a government demand that their workers join one of the unions on an NDP-approved list.

As with the lawyers, the objective is government control.

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The NDP dictates which union you should join, or not join … like it or not.

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