It's Time To Update And Strengthen Ontario's Labour Laws
By Brad James
In 1993, amidst intense opposition from the some in the business community, Bob Rae’s NDP government implemented reforms to Ontario’s Labour Relations Act. There were several significant changes. Labour Board decisions about allegations that employers were illegally stopping their employees from joining unions were sped up; more employees were given legislative protections and replacement workers were stopped from taking the jobs of those legally on strike.
A scant two years later, the Harris Conservative government vapourized all of that and cut even deeper, easing constraints against employers trying to backstop de-unionization of their workplaces. It also pushed what labour felt was an undemocratic voting procedure on those trying to bring in a union.
Aside from some modest tinkering, the last twenty years have seen Ontario’s bedrock labour laws pretty much untouched by government.
But in the meantime, the grinding relocation of manufacturing jobs to other nations, the continued replacement of people with technology and other potent forces have tilted the field against employees. With that backdrop, the two decades of labour law remaining unchanged has made it easier for employers to keep a heavy lid on improvements to working conditions.
Indeed, independent observers agree job quality has slid backwards in many respects.
As even some banks have reported, steady, full-time jobs with decent wages, benefits and retirement income have become less common, replaced by part-time and casual hours, short-term contracts, lower pay and minimal or no benefits or retirement income.
The United Way of Greater Toronto estimates that close to half of employees aged 25-65 in that region alone have only temporary or contract jobs, or work that shares those characteristics. One in five employees are firmly in that most insecure class of temporary and contract work or highly fragile self-employment. That’s a regional increase of nearly 60% since 1989.
The pernicious impact of flimsy employment is acutely understood by the real people stuck with these jobs. And growing public awareness means that effective advocacy groups with smart ideas for reform, like the Workers’ Action Centre in Toronto, have successfully built media interest that has fostered momentum for change.
The good news is that the Wynne government has decided to review the Labour Relations Act and its partner, the Employment Standards Act, as set out in Premier Wynne's September 2014 mandate letter[BJ1] to Labour Minister Kevin Flynn upon his reappointment to the post.
The task was set in a context of compromise - no surprise from a Liberal government. On one hand, the Premier’s letter asserted that employees must be protected and that our “evolving economy” is seeding worrisome growth in “non-standard employment” and inspiring employers to throttle back on employee benefits and training. On the other hand, she asserted that consideration must also be given to “supporting businesses in our changing economy.”
Two seasoned experts were named to conduct the “Changing Workplaces Review”: union-side labour lawyer Michael Mitchell and former Ontario Superior Court Justice and management-side labour lawyer Honourable John Murray.
Travelling to 11 Ontario cities last summer, they heard from people affected by the escalation of temporary jobs, involuntary part-time work and self-employment, the rise of the service sector, mobile capital, trade liberalization, accelerating technological change.
Presenters showed up in volume: mainly working people, community groups, unions and labour-friendly organizations eager to talk about the genuine impacts of the labour laws' shortcomings. Perhaps surprisingly, only a few employer-side delegations appeared. The Ontario Chamber of Commerce’s submission was one of the few, offering ideas that, in the main, favour the status quo.
Some of the meatier submissions were those from my union, the United Steelworkers, from Unifor and from the Workers’ Action Centre. The Steelworkers’ submission focused on strengthening employees’ rights and asserted that employees need more influence over their terms of work. Non-union employees, it argued, should not face Employment Standards Act exclusions or other barriers to overtime pay, hours of work and wages, simply due to the sector they happen to work in. There should be universal rules for all employees, whether in precarious work or unionized workplaces.
It also called on the government to address the problem of wages plummeting when, for example, companies contract out functions like office cleaning, food services and security to outside firms. Employment in these outside firms has jumped by 39% since 2000, and these employees are often already low wage and part time. They regularly have their union contracts and terms of employment disappear when clients choose new contractors, even when the employees retain jobs with the new contractor company. This gap can be repaired with successorship provisions to protect collective agreement rights when such services are re-tendered.
As well, Ontarians deserve a truly fair method for choosing whether or not to get engaged in shaping their terms of work by joining a union. The current vote process is miles from democratic and stacks the deck against employees: employers have free reign to campaign on company property against their employees joining a union, but campaigns in favour are extremely difficult in the workplace itself. Until just a few days before any vote, employees are not allowed an accurate list of co-workers, nor even to know how many employees actually exist. And employers that break the law face few penalties save sometimes being ordered to reinstate those they have fired illegally.
Finally, modest new provisions can help to resolve labour disputes, such as allowing employers and unions to seek arbitration if a lockout or strike has lasted for 90 days or more, and ensuring that striking employees can return to work at the conclusion of a strike.
What should not be eroded is the capacity of freely chosen, democratic unions, independent of employer control, to engage in effective, accountable collective bargaining.
The review’s work continues into 2016. Unions and employee groups speculate that the business community will hold its fire until the special advisors’ preliminary report lands on Minister Flynn’s desk in the coming months.
The Wynne government needs to move quickly after the Review’s final report later this summer. There is concern that the closer it gets to the 2018 election, the more likely it is that the government could lose either nerve or interest.
Tepid amendments to our employment laws will not help Ontarians current suffering with low wages and shaky working conditions.
On their own, improved employment and labour laws cannot fully address our severe and persistent income inequality. But effective rehabilitation of the Labour Relations Act and the Employment Standards Act will be a very important help.
Brad James is the Organizing Department Leader for the United Steelworkers Canadian National Office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are his own.