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                           Ontario’s Labour Law Changes:

                       More Than Just The Minimum Wage

 

By Brad James

Ask somebody in Ontario what’s been happening around employment law and you’ll probably hear something about the minimum wage.

Lifting Ontario’s wage floor has been a hot topic on op-ed pages for months. 

It will move from its current $11.60 to $15 on January 1, 2019, a 29% increase. After that, its growth will be tied to inflation.

It’s now an election issue. The Conservatives, proclaiming anxiety about business costs, have made a slower longer phase-in ($15 yes, but not until 2022) one of their key election planks. The governing Liberals are smoothly touting the benefits of $15 per hour by 2019 in their ads and fundraising emails. The NDP is more or less on the sidelines in the minimum wage dust-up, though New Democrats are advocating for liquor servers and students under 18, two groups exempted from the increases.

The public has limited attention available for employment law issues, and the minimum wage topic has grabbed most of it.

Even the Toronto Star, arguably the newspaper that has best covered labour policy, has focused on the minimum wage and other changes to the Employment Standards Act (ESA).  Much less time and angst has been devoted to the revisions to the Labour Relations Act, the law that governs union-employer relations.

After all, close to 86% of Ontario’s private sector workers are not in unions.  That means that the changes to the ESA – the employment law that is the floor for pretty much everyone – are the newsmakers.

And if they are considered one at a time, the changes to the Labour Relations Act might seem like small beer.  But mix them together and, depending on how employees, employers and unions and react to them, the results could make some waves.

A quick rundown of the renovations:

·           If employees and a union show the provincial labour board that 20% of employees have signed up, the union can obtain a list of all employees in a workplace.

 

·           If an employer has broken the law and made it impossible for employees to express their true wishes around unionization, the labour board must "remedially" certify the union, setting aside the usual requirement for a majority to sign cards or vote in favour of unionization.

 

·           People who form a union at work can have their new bargaining unit consolidated and merged with a pre-existing unit of employees working for the same employer if they are represented by the same union.

 

·           Cleaners, food service workers and security guards can now form unions when more than 55% of them sign union membership cards, as construction workers have been able to do since 2004.  People working in every other sector still have to make the decision by a vote, even if every employee signs a union card.  

 

·           Cleaners, food service workers and security guards now have the right to keep their union membership when, as happens so often, their employer is displaced by a non-union company stepping in to provide the service to the client at whose site they are working.

 

·           Once a new union is formed, employees are protected against unjust discipline or discharge right off the bat; they no longer have to wait for that right to be bargained into their first collective agreement.

 

·           All unionized employees now have the right to return to their jobs after a strike or lockout, displacing replacement workers who might have been doing them during the strike (coldly known as “scabs”); before Bill 148 this right lasted for just the first six months of a strike. 

It will take time for these changes to shake out.  Spreading the word about the revised Labour Relations Act will not be quick. As well, employers and unions are already preparing for litigation about how these new provisions should actually work. Expect lawyers on all sides to be facing off soon.

But some things are evident.

Ontario’s labour law changes are a stark contrast to what’s taking place in the U.S. as the Republican Party rolls back the modest changes made under President Obama.

The legislated provision of employee lists in bona-fide organizing campaigns is unique in North American labour law. It is meant to partially fix the imbalance between employees and their employers in their capacities to effectively communicate about unionizing. If it is successful, other provinces may consider importing it.

Strikes are getting rarer in Ontario, but the strikes that do happen appear to be taking longer to resolve.  The revised Labour Relations Act removes the time limit on employees’ rights to return to their jobs after a strike and it gives them "just cause" protection for discipline imposed during labour disputes.  These two thorny issues will no longer need to be bargained in order to end strikes and lockouts, perhaps bringing them to resolution more quickly.

The Act’s new consolidation power could mean the growth of larger, more durable bargaining units. This can improve outcomes for employees and increase bargaining efficiency – not a bad outcome for employers.

It is common for employers to try to convince their employees not to unionize.  But the minority of employers that choose to emphatically break the law now have a much more compelling deterrent against doing so – the labour board’s requirement to certify the union in such cases.

Of course these changes on their own won’t propel throngs of non-union employees into union halls and offices across the province. 

But the Labour Relations Act is now a much more interesting and more useful tool for people who want to unionize and bargain.  If unions can both cooperate and innovate, and if people see good results when their neighbours and friends unionize, things could get interesting in Ontario.

 

Brad James is the Organizing Department Leader for the United Steelworkers Canadian National Office. Follow him on Twitter @jamesbrad263. Opinions expressed are his own.


 

 

 

 

Posted date : December 20, 2017
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