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Secret ballots essential for workplace union drives
Wednesday, 3 May 2017 - 8:45am
Back in 2013, a union organizer strolled into Alberta’s provincial labour board office and plunked down some cards signed by employees at an undisclosed workplace.
The union official claimed the cards indicated 100 per cent of the employees at the workplace supported joining the union. Not long afterwards, the Alberta Labour Relations Board conducted a secret ballot vote among the employees to determine if they truly wanted to join the union. Surprisingly, not a single employee voted in favour of joining the union.
In 2015, a similar situation unfolded – twice. In both instances, the unions once again claimed to the Alberta Labour Relations Board that every employee, at two different workplaces, had signed cards in favour of joining the respective unions. However, when employees at both workplaces were later given a chance to vote privately on the matter, only 25 per cent voted to join the union.
Given the aforementioned examples, it should be clear why unions in Alberta are currently urging the Notley government to eliminate the secret ballot vote and merely rely on signed cards; “support” for joining a union often drops substantially when people are allowed to vote on the matter privately.
The NDP government is currently reviewing Alberta’s labour legislation and is considering recommendations from unions to eliminate your right to a secret ballot vote if someone wants to unionize your workplace. (Note that the NDP’s constitution provides unions with special voting positions when it comes to choosing its leader and determining party policy.)
But if the Notley government is truly concerned about the democratic wishes of employees at a workplace, they’ll review the same Alberta government data we did and keep the voting process in place.
The examples mentioned above are from a small mountain of data the Manning Centre obtained from the Alberta Labour Relations Board. Overall, the government’s data showed 31 instances between 2009-2015 whereby the amount of “support” a union claimed it had for unionizing a workplace dropped by 15 per cent or more once employees voted privately on the matter.
Why would support for unionizing a workplace decrease substantially once employees could vote privately?
A letter to the editor in the Winnipeg Free Press (April 2016) provides a possible answer. At the time, the Manitoba government would automatically unionize a workplace if a union presented signed cards from 65 per cent or more employees.
The author of the letter, David Deighton, noted “… late one night, two very large union organizers visited my home and tried to get me to sign a union card. They indicated that all my fellow coworkers had signed and so should I.”
How would you feel if two ‘very large’ men popped by your house ‘late at night’ and encouraged you to sign something? Imagine if you were new to Canada and didn’t speak English fluently – or perhaps if you were a single mom and living alone. Would you sign their card?
Deighton went on to note how allowing people to vote privately on the matter takes away the possibility for “intimidation.” It’s the same logic behind why we choose our politicians privately rather than through a ‘card’ sign-up process that allows others to know our views. It’s also interesting to note that unions also use a secret ballot for electing their own presidents.
The website of the Labourers’ Industrial Union of North America may provide another possibility as to why someone might sign a union card even though they don’t support joining the union. Their site notes that unions will use “sneaky” tactics to “trick” people into signing cards to join other unions.
Make no mistake, not every union uses intimidation or ‘tricks’ to gather signatures in support of unionizing a workplace. But if we want a system that determines whether or not workers truly want their workplace to unionize, we’ll keep the secret ballot process in place.
Colin Craig is director of strategic communications at the Manning Centre and is author of the Government Wears Prada.
This column was published by the Edmonton Journal on May 3, 2017