Workers in British Columbia Just Won Single-Step Union Certification

Before the anti-labor onslaught of the 1980s, union recognition in Canada was straightforward and democratic — all it took was a workplace majority to sign authorization cards. Now, decades later, workers in BC have won back this fundamental right.

The new labor law in British Columbia will make it harder for employers to interfere in union drives. (Ken Whytock / Unsplash)

The British Columbia (BC) government recently introduced legislation that will allow a majority of workers to organize a union a little more easily and make it harder for employers to intimidate and interfere in organizing drives. That’s good news both for working people and for the quality of our democracy.

Single-step certification means that if a clear majority of workers back forming a union — and sign authorization cards declaring this — they are allowed to form one. This is actually a return to the traditional framework for union certification in Canada. The single-step process was the norm until the 1980s, when governments began rolling it back in many provinces, including BC. This rollback was part of a longer trend in cuts to the social safety net and broader anti-labor policies.

Beginning in the 1980s, labor laws were changed in many provinces to make forming a union more difficult, specifically by instituting a two-step process. After a majority of workers had signed union authorization cards, a second step was added requiring a reconfirmation vote. This might sound innocuous (if unnecessary), but the main effect was to give employers a window to run anti-union campaigns and intimidate workers into abandoning organizing drives.

Employer Interference Campaigns

Employer interference campaigns are common, and typically include tactics like holding captive-audience meetings — mandatory anti-union meetings — and the use of anti-union messaging, steady streams of which are posted around the workplace and sent through text. Other common tactics include hiring consultants who specialize in union-busting efforts and simply firing the workers who are most active in the organizing effort.

Unfortunately, these types of practices are widespread. They have been getting somewhat more media attention recently during a wave of worker organizing drives at large corporations like Amazon and Starbucks in the United States. But the same tactics are used in Canada at corporations like Amazon, Starbucks, and Tim Hortons, and in many lesser-known firms throughout various sectors.

To help reduce these types of practices, BC instituted a set of labor law reforms in 2019, but the province didn’t bring back single-step certification at that time. The 2019 reforms included shortening the gap between the initial application for union certification and the reconfirmation vote, which was aimed at reducing the window of opportunity for employers to interfere.

In 2018, the three members of a BC expert panel on labor law agreed that if employer abuses continued after the implementation of reforms, the case for returning to single-step certification would be “compelling.” When the return to single-step certification was announced in April 2022, labor minister Harry Bains cited several recent rulings from the BC Labour Relations Board (LRB) as evidence of ongoing employer interference. For example, in a ruling earlier this year, the LRB found that a waste management company had fired “the union’s chief organizer at the very start of an organizing campaign,” and that this was “without proper cause and [with] anti-union motivation.”

In a February 2022 ruling, the LRB found that an electrical contractor used tactics like captive-audience meetings to threaten “dire employment consequences” if workers unionized. According to the LRB, “the Employer’s conduct was egregious, and the extent to which it interfered with the fundamental right of employees to decide whether to join a trade union was severe.” In another 2020 case, the LRB found that a food-processing firm near Vernon fired two workers with “the effect of ending the Union’s organizing drive in its tracks,” typical of a “‘hit hard, hit early’ strategy of union avoidance.”

Democratic Knock-On Effects

The return to single-step certification won’t mean the end of aggressive anti-union campaigns, but it will make them somewhat more difficult to carry out and give workers a fighting chance to form a union. Critics of the process have argued that the two-step certification process is intended to reduce unionization rates. Research examining two-step certification in BC and other jurisdictions proves that unionization curtailment is precisely what the process accomplishes.

Strengthening the right of workers to organize unions has broad implications for tackling extreme inequality and creating more democratic control over our politics. Unions help offset a critical imbalance of power that exists between workers and owners. It’s increasingly clear that the rich wield disproportionate influence over politics across the developed world, in some cases blocking progress on many of the most important challenges we face.

For example, last year the BC public overwhelmingly backed instituting a right to ten paid sick days, a position strongly supported by health experts and economists. But after intensive lobbying efforts by corporations, the provincial government implemented only five days. Recent policy debates for a wealth tax on the superrich tell a similar story. Despite the support of 89 percent of Canadians, including large majorities of voters across the political spectrum, a wealth tax is nowhere to be seen.

Stronger unions can help close this alarming gap between public will and government policy in these areas, offsetting and fighting back against the influence of corporate power and the rich. Indeed, a growing body of empirical research suggests that higher unionization rates can help reduce persistent political inequalities whereby the rich exert disproportionate influence.

As my own doctoral research and other analysis has found, working-class people are severely underrepresented among legislative officeholders across the developed world. This lack of direct representation in government is one of the factors contributing to the diminished influence that workers have over public policy. But this too can be changed. The same research finds that where unionization rates are higher, workers are more likely to hold public office.

Democracy Shouldn’t Stop at the Workplace Door

Higher unionization rates are associated with lower levels of economic inequality and improved pay equity between genders, driven in part by the pay transparency that collective agreements require. Research has shown that being part of a union and working in common struggle with other workers also tends to reduce racial prejudice and resentment.

Unions help ensure workers have some element of a democratic voice in capitalist workplaces, which are by their basic structure deeply undemocratic, with owners and managers holding the power. Unions help workers have a collective voice to partly counterbalance the power of bosses. There’s no reason workers shouldn’t also own and control these companies.

Why should democracy stop at the workplace front door? Why shouldn’t workers have more of a direct say in the companies where they generate profits and spend much of their lives? If that sounds radical, keep in mind that recent proposals along these lines attract high levels of public support across party lines in polling in the United States.

None of this can happen, however, without building working-class power. Corporations and politicians have never handed over rights to workers without a fight. Indeed, big business lobby groups are already mobilizing to try to block the right to single-step certification.

Strengthening the right to unionize is essential not only to workers seeking to raise their wages and improve their working conditions but also to tackle extreme inequality and deepen democracy. By removing one barrier to forming unions and blunting the effect of corporate anti-union campaigns, the return to single-step union certification is a win for workers in BC.