Second Thoughts for Freedom in B.C.
It's not about the economy, it's not about new jobs, it's not about encouraging investment. It's about helping the B. C. Federation of Labour, the largest single contributor to the NDP's campaign in 1996. ... It's taking away workers' rights and it's going to hurt investment in B. C. and kill jobs.
—Gordon Campbell, leader of the B.C. Liberal Party
Labour history in British Columbia is repeating itself. Back in the mid-1970s, the mainline construction trade unions took a stab at establishing monopoly control over jobs in the construction industry. Then, as now, an NDP government, led by Premier Dave Barret (1972-1975), did its share to help its union friends. It did so by appointing James Kinnaird, a former building trade union official, to serve as a one-man commission of inquiry into the province's construction labour relations.
Kinnaird was instructed to investigate the labour relations problems of the construction industry and recommend ways to improve them. Not surprisingly, he recommended that more power be given to the building trade unions. How? By certifying these unions to represent all employees in a certain geographical area if they could prove they represented a majority of all skilled tradesmen in that area.
Kinnaird's initial report, presented in October 1975, left little doubt about what the proposal meant for construction workers: "All relevant construction employees would have to become members of the craft unions, the nonunion people paying the nominal fees paid in the organizing drives at present."
This attempt at monopolizing the B.C. construction industry failed for a number of reasons. The New Democrats were defeated in the 1975 provincial election.
Since then, the B.C. building trade unions have lost a lot of ground. They have been unable to perpetuate their powerful position in the industry, where they once controlled about 80 per cent of all major construction projects in the province. Their share of the work now stands at about 25 per cent.
The reason for this slide is that these unions have failed "to become more responsive to present day realities," according to the Construction Industry Review Panel, appointed last year by the government. Obviously, their traditional tough-line policies no longer work. For one thing, market conditions have changed quite a bit. Their wasteful and often ridiculous jurisdictional disputes and work rules simply can no longer be maintained.
Despite facing declining membership numbers, the building trade unions never thought to critically examine their adversarial approach. Rather than adopt policies that would persuade workers to join voluntarily, they looked for ways to strengthen their coercive power. And a sympathetic government was all too willing to help—again.
A bold grab for power
On June 25, the current B.C. government, led by Premier Glen Clark, a former Ironworkers organizer, introduced Bill 44, provoking a storm of protest from business, opposition parties, and independent unions. Labour Minister John Cashore stated at the introduction of the bill that, while B.C. labour relations were excellent, the intention of the proposed legislation was to provide stability in the construction industry.
The strongest public opposition was directed at the bill's intention to sweep all construction workers, divided into seven sectors, into the folds of designated unions. The bill, while ambiguous in detail, would give unions representing a majority of workers in a particular sector de facto monopoly control. Invariably, this would favour the mainline building trade unions.
Nonaffiliated unions would become irrelevant or eliminated altogether. Vaughn Palmer of the Vancouver Sun reported that a labour ministry official explained that one of the intentions of the new bill was to make it easier for the building trade unions to raid alternative (independent) unions. After tabling the bill, Cashore explained that the incentive for the proposed changes came from the labour movement: "In this particular situation, you could certainly say that we were on the same wave length with labour."
The boldness of the attempt to hand over monopoly control of construction jobs to the building trade unions was also its undoing. Protests against the bill, expressed by business and the opposition Liberals, concerned itself mainly with the economic impact of the proposed changes, and with the failure of the government to consult with representatives of business. Cashore admitted he didn't consult much with business because he knew they would be opposed to the bill.
Business was adamant in arguing that the economic impact, including its effect on jobs, would be disastrous. They pointed out that in the last three years, business investment in B.C. has been declining. Bill 44 would only make matters worse.
Jerry Lampert, president of the Business Council of B.C., said that labour and employment laws are an important consideration for investors. The proposed changes would be totally counter-productive. Business Council statistics show that investment in B.C. has declined from $20.4 billion in 1994 to $18.5 billion in 1996. By comparison, new investment in Alberta last year was $19.7 billion, even though Alberta's population is much smaller. Investment in B.C. amounted to only $4,810 per person, compared to $6,947 per person in Alberta.
Lampert lashed out at officials over the proposed changes: "We're very angry this afternoon. The list of proposed amendments tilts the playing field in favour of the unions. This is clearly a package that's nothing more than a union wish-list. We're very disappointed, and we're going to do everything possible to make the public aware of the government's attitude against businesses. The business community—small, medium, and large—is united in opposition to the proposed changes."
Wally Nathan, a building contractor, said that the new labour code would put him out of business. He explained that small companies like his can't afford the increased costs that would result from the universal application of building trade unions' collective agreements. Consequently, he predicted that employment would be hurt, and especially that young people would have a harder time to get jobs.
Meanwhile, Ken Georgetti, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour—a huge backer of the NDP in the previous election—argued that the changes would be good for the province because it would provide better quality workmanship and better wages for employees. He wrote that the employers' "over-reaction to modest amendments that correct abuses and reflect change in the workplace is more evidence that employers insist on being the boss in labour law. . . . The patronizing and threatening approach of these employers speaks volumes about the need for changes to protect workers."
He and other trade unionists insisted that Bill 44 would insure that the standard of workmanship would improve. The implication being, of course, that nonunion employees or nonaffiliated union members are inferior workers. If this were true, it would indeed weaken the position of union critics. But the truth is that unionists are using the workmanship issue as just another diversionary tactic to sidestep the real issue.
In the wake of the fury over the proposed changes, the government retreated. On the evening of July 16, it withdrew the bill, and business groups cancelled a major protest rally scheduled for the next day. Premier Clark said, "We should have talked to people more before we brought the legislation in."
And that's precisely what the government is now going to do. It announced that two review panels would be appointed to study the issue carefully and receive public input before proceeding. This time for further reflection should be used by the government to do some real soul searching.
Freedom is essential
It's revealing that many objections to Bill 44 were of a purely pragmatic nature. Business argued that the economic impacts would be ruinous; they insisted they could not afford the extra cost that unionization would inevitably entail.
To be sure, this argument has a lot of merit, as the history of labour relations in B.C. has all too clearly shown. At the height of their semi-monopoly power, construction unions were adept at driving up wage costs unrealistically. They did so not only because of increases in direct wage costs, but perhaps even more so by imposing restrictive work rules that at one time proliferated like bad weeds.
Criticizing Bill 44 on the basis of economics makes sense. But it is only a secondary argument. Because the worst part of Bill 44 is not the potential economic impact. It is denying B.C. construction workers their right to freedom of association. This government needs to reflect hard on the fact that it is fundamentally wrong to use the power of the state to eliminate workers' freedom of association.
That's why the independent Christian Labour Association of Canada, which has aroused the wrath of the mainline construction trade unions over the years because of its emphasis on cooperation and mutual trust in the workplace, took a strong public stance against Bill 44. CLAC staff had extensive discussions with officials from the Premier's office and the Ministry of Labour.
Independent unions, such as CLAC, are freely chosen by a substantial and growing number of B.C. workers. They bring an alternative approach to labour relations that enable workers to make choices. And it is such choices that are really what a free society is all about. No amount of propaganda by unions long used to throwing their weight around can change that.
It is a sign of hope that the B.C. government saw fit to withdraw this ill-conceived proposed legislation. The time for second thoughts should especially be used to stress that membership and support of a trade union is much more than a question of dollars and cents. Even more significant is the choices that people should be able to make about the connection between politics and labour relations, the meaning of work, a cooperative versus adversarial labour relations approach, respect for the opinions of others, and experiencing work as a way to express who we are as human beings.
All of these and many other fundamental issues are at stake in the controversy surrounding Bill 44. It's time that those who don't wish to be restricted by a one-size-fits-all unionism stand up and refuse to be recruited as fodder for Big Labour. Life, especially in this very privileged and as yet largely free country, is fortunately more complicated—and better—than that.Subscribe