Bill C-525: An Act to Amend the Canada Labour Code, the Parliamentary Employment and Staff Relations Act and the Public Service Labour Relations Act (certification and revocation – bargaining agent)1
C-525 is the 2nd of the Harper Government’s back door Private Members’ Bills to target unions, after C-377. As the title of C-525 makes clear, this bill amends long-standing rules about how unions certify and decertify under the Canada Labour Code (Code). CUPE represents almost 20,000 members in 40 + locals under the Code (other CUPE members fall under provincial labour legislation).
C-525 is designed to make it harder for unions to be certified and to make it easier for unions to be decertified. Parliamentary committee hearings confirmed that is no evidence that there was any consultation with unions, or even employers, on this legislation. The sponsor of the bill claims that he was motivated to bring the bill forward because of constituent concerns, and that’s who he consulted.
C-525 was introduced in 2013 by Conservative backbench MP Blaine Calkins who holds the riding of Wetaskiwin (AB). Calkins, first elected in 2006, has little to fear from introducing such legislation since he wins his seat with overwhelming majorities: in 2011, he carried 81% of the vote in his riding. Prior to 2006, he was an elected town councillor in Lacombe, Alberta.
C-525 passed 2nd reading extremely quickly, especially for a PMB, on January 29, 2014, and was referred to the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities (HUMA). At HUMA, the government amended the Bill through the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Labour. The Bill was reported back to the House of Commons on February 24, 2014, and went through 3rd reading on April 9, 2014.
Some key provisions of the current (that is, pre C-525) Canada Labour Code
- The Code allows for automatic certification if the union demonstrates it has the support of “a majority” (50% +) of the bargaining unit by filings cards and collected initiation fees.
- The minimum threshold of support for any certification application is at least 35%. If a union applies with between 35% and 50% support of the total number of employees in the unit applied for, the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) usually orders a vote.
- Where such votes are conducted, 50% + 1 of the ballots cast indicate enough support to certify.
- CIRB only conducts votes in approximately 20% of certification applications.
- CIRB is also famous for taking months to organize even these few votes (and disposing of other sensitive matters). The longer the time between filing for certification and the vote taking place, the more time the employer has to chill the workplace and intimidate workers, preventing any increase of union support and eroding support of those who signed cards.
- For revocation of certification, the Code requires an applicant to demonstrate support from a majority (50% +) of bargaining unit employees before the application is considered.
- When the support threshold is demonstrated, the CIRB still has to satisfy itself revocation is appropriate by some means which can include requiring a secret ballot vote. If there is a vote, a majority (50% +) of all employees in the bargaining unit must vote to support decertification for the decertification application to be granted.
- When there is no collective agreement, currently the decertification window is not open if the union is making reasonable efforts to bargain.
What C-525 (after amendments at HUMA)
- C-525 eliminates the possibility of automatic certification completely. All applications will have to go through a “secret-ballot vote” before they can be certified.
- Unions now need the support of at least 40% of the employees in a potential bargaining unit to apply for certification.
- After a government amendment, the CIRB will certify the union if a majority of those voting support the union. Originally the bill required a majority of all employees in the unit applied for to vote to support the union in the secret-ballot vote before the union could be certified.
- It does not set any time limits for the Board to hold votes after an application for certification is received (i.e. no “quick votes”).
- It lowers the threshold at which the CIRB has to consider decertification applications from a majority (50%+1) to at least 40%. Under C-525, the CIRB will have to conduct a vote every time such a decertification application is received.
- A decertification application will be dismissed if a majority of employees in the unit who vote cast a vote to keep the union. (In the original bill, anyone who didn’t vote at all was counted as if they voted to support the decertification. This was changed with a government amendment)
The NDP tried once again to amend C-525 at 3rd (and final) reading in the House of Commons on April 9th.
While the Liberals, the Block and the Green Party’s MPs voted with the NDP to try to mitigate some of the worst aspects of the Bill, the Conservative majority defeated the NDP’s attempts. The Bill remains as it was amended at HUMA.
In the Senate
C-525 now moves to the Senate; it has already been “read” into the record which means it can be called into 2nd reading and moved to a Senate committee at very short notice. The Senate may try to push it through Committee hearings and through 3rd reading before the end of the spring session. The Bill will come into effect six months after Royal Assent is received – possibly by spring 2015.
It is no surprise that such anti-union legislation would come out of the Harper government caucus. However, in this sector it marks a huge and historical departure from how changes to labour legislation are normally developed. Federally, the parties have negotiated changes to legislation and regulation through consultation with the employers’ organization (FETCO) and labour (CLC). As a management-side witness said at the HUMA, this is not the business of politicians and bureaucrats. It is for the experts who are the practitioners. The federal private sector deliberately sought balance and has avoided the pendulum swings seen in the provinces. Representatives of the employer community unequivocally condemned the bill at HUMA. They clearly stated that C-525 does not come from the employer side. In fact, they wanted the government to maintain the balance and leave the Code alone.
C-525 is anti-union legislation, plain and simple. It makes it harder to certify and easier to decertify unions under the Canada Labour Code and it will provide opportunities for provinces to also lower their standards, where they have fewer qualms about amending legislation when the government changes.
The government amendments to the bill make some things better and others worse. When first introduced, it was an even worse piece of legislation: it required a majority of employees in a bargaining unit to vote to support certification. In other words, anyone who did not vote was deemed to have voted “no” to unionization. Similarly, Calkins’ original formulation of the bill also required majority support for the union from all employees of the bargaining unit if there was an application to decertify. Now, it is the majority of those voting who decide, but through the same amendments the support threshold for certification has been raised and the threshold for decertification has been lowered.
The Conservative majority rejected the NDP’s attempts to amend C-525. However, the Conservative majority at HUMA did adopt government amendments which covered some of the changes.
C-525 is still hugely problematic: it politicizes a labour Code where balance had been found by employers and unions. The bill revokes automatic certification and does not require a true majority of support for decertification. It does not impose strict timelines on when votes happen. It does not address the fact that the CIRB does not have the resources and staff necessary to implement C-525. It has removed a provision which blocked decertification applications during a delicate period when the union was trying to negotiate a collective agreement.
Fundamentally, C-525 – like C-377 – is a solution in search of a problem. Employers have not asked for it; workers do not want it. It is another ideological attack on workers and unions by the Conservatives.