British Columbia Just Gave Us More Proof: Card Check Helps Union Efforts

Card-check unionization, reinstated by British Columbia last year, proved highly effective, with a 59% surge in union certification applications and a vast majority resulting in new bargaining units. It’s indisputable: card check is a huge boon to labor.

Municipal workers from Unifor Local 2300 stand on strike in downtown Kitimat, British Columbia, Canada, on June 5, 2015. (Ben Nelms / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Last month, the British Columbia Labour Relations Board (BCLRB) released its annual report for 2022. Such dispatches are usually dry reading, of interest only to experts and a small number of interested parties. But this year is different. With the rules recently changed to make it easier for workers to join unions, 2022’s report provides an opportunity to assess the impact of labor-law reform. As the board’s report shows, under the new “card check” model, workers are indeed unionizing at higher rates.

Union Decline and the Case for Card Check

In both the United States and Canada, union density has been on a downward trend for decades. The latest figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that union density has fallen by half between 1983 and 2022. In the early 1980s, over 20 percent of American workers belonged to a union. Last year, despite unions adding 273,000 new members, density continued its precipitous fall, dropping from 10.3 to 10.1 percent.

Canadian union density, on the other hand, has fallen from 38 percent in 1981 to 29 percent last year. Canada’s relatively higher density is maintained by employees in the public sector, where 77 percent are union members. In the private sector, just 15 percent of workers belong to a union. In fact, when only full-time employees are included in the sample, Canadian union density shows a larger decline than in the United States (over eleven percentage points).

As polling shows, falling union density is not reflective of workers’ preferences. Support for unions is way up, and many nonunion workers indicate that they’d join a union if given the chance. Union density is down because employers fight like hell to keep workers unorganized, and the laws regulating access to collective bargaining are stacked against workers.

Making it easier to join a union through a “card check” model is therefore a central plank in many labor-law reform agendas. It’s a key proposal in the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, as it was in the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) of 2009. This “single step” process allows workers to more easily form unions when a majority have signed cards. Without the additional requirement of a mandatory vote, employers have less time to intimidate workers and squash organizing drives. At one time, card check was common in many Canadian provinces, but right-wing provincial governments had largely put an end to it by the late 1990s.

The Impact of Card Check So Far

In June of 2022, the New Democratic Party government in British Columbia passed Bill 10, which reintroduced card-check unionization in the province. A significant victory for the provincial labor movement, the bill amended the province’s Labour Relations Code to allow workers to form unions when 55 percent have signed cards.

Prior to Bill 10, as in most other Canadian provinces, unions in British Columbia needed to win a mandatory election after submitting signed cards. Under this old model, unions had to show support from a minimum of 45 percent of workers at a jobsite, and then win a majority in a labor board–supervised vote. According to the bill, unions can still opt for a vote with 45 percent support, if they choose.

The British Columbia Federation of Labour campaigned hard for this reform, and at 70 percent support, public opinion was solidly on its side. At the same time, how impactful card check might ultimately be remained an open question. Union decline is, after all, the result of many factors — industrial restructuring, weak labor-law enforcement, and a lack of union organizing, among other things. Could card check begin to reverse falling union density?

The BCLRB’s 2022 report shows that card check is, in fact, making a difference. Overall, union certification applications in the province increased 59.3 percent — going from 108 filed in 2021 to 172 filed in 2022. Notably, over 66 percent of applications for new bargaining units occurred after card check came into force in June.

Of the 155 applications that the board finished processing by the end of last year, 135 resulted in new union bargaining units. The law therefore also appears to be improving the success rate of unions. In 2021, slightly more than 79 percent of applications resulted in a union certification. Last year, 87 percent of applications resulted in a new bargaining unit. The total number of workers across new bargaining units also grew by 52.6 percent. In 2021, certifications resulted in 2,766 new union members. For 2022, that figure is 4,222. In other words, despite only being in effect for the last seven months of 2022, card check has clearly been a net positive for workers and unions.

Card check has also greatly increased the efficiency of the provincial labor board. Now that most certification applications no longer require the additional step of a mandatory election, applications can be processed — and unions certified — much more quickly. In 2021, it took the board an average of forty-six days to process a certification application — to verify signed cards, hold an election, and certify the results. After Bill 10, it took an average of only eight days. It can’t be stressed enough how important speeding up the certification process is, especially for workers whose employer is hostile to their organizing effort.

Some might object that the comparison to 2021 is unfair because the COVID-19 pandemic potentially made it more difficult for unions to organize and file certification applications. If this were true, the base year of comparison would make 2022’s figures less impressive and less accurate. However, we should keep in mind that many unions reported increased interest from workers in 2020 and 2021.

Perhaps more importantly, labor boards across Canada introduced and expanded electronic voting to make it easier for workers to vote in elections during the pandemic. The BCLRB, in particular, announced in June 2021 that it would continue with electronic voting. Likely in part because of this policy, there was no significant drop in certification applications in 2021 relative to the years before the pandemic. Furthermore, online voter turnout in union certification elections was consistently high, averaging 86 percent in 2020 and 84 percent in 2021.

What’s Next?

A common refrain from employers and the business lobby is that card check makes it harder to verify union support. Signed union cards, according to this argument, aren’t as reliable as a secret ballot vote. As expected, this turns out to be entirely false. Officers at the BCLRB performed random union membership audits on 65 percent of applications filed after card check came into force. Only four workers out of the 569 contacted indicated that they didn’t sign a union card or were unsure if they had. That’s a whopping 0.7 per cent of those sampled.

On the other hand, unions applied for certification with an impressive average of 74 percent support after card check was passed. No comparable figures are reported for 2021, so we don’t know if this represents an improvement from the previous year. Nevertheless, it does seem to confirm what we already knew: many workers want to be union members and enthusiastically sign up when it’s a safer option.

Overall, the BCLRB’s figures for 2022 are very promising, particularly since card check was only in force from June onward. A whole calendar year with this policy in place could show even better results. These unionization numbers are especially good news because British Columbia has suffered the largest union decline in Canada. While all provinces — with the exceptions of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia — saw union membership fall by roughly 2 to 3 percent between 1997 and 2022, British Columbia’s unionization rate plummeted 6.8 percent.

At the same, card check is not a panacea. While certifying 135 new bargaining units in 2022 is unequivocally good news — and an improvement over recent years — it is still a far cry from the number of annual union certifications registered in British Columbia a couple of decades ago. In 1996, ’97 and ’98, unions formed 430, 409, and 348 new bargaining units, respectively. In other words, 2022 may have reversed the province’s downward trend in union applications and certifications, but it’s less clear that card check alone can fully turn the tide.

Moreover, a real test for unions will be the share of these new bargaining units that are able to negotiate good first contracts and maintain themselves through what are often difficult first years. British Columbia’s “first contract arbitration” provision will, thankfully, prevent employers from refusing to bargain or dragging out the process, as is common in the United States. Ultimately, it’ll be up to the British Columbia labor movement to continue to make good use of card check, mobilize new union members, and win gains for the province’s working class.

Card check was a great first step. The data shows this clearly. But organizing doesn’t stop after the cards are signed.