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Rob Shaw: How the legislature turned into the Twilight Zone

In which the BC NDP thwart the government lawyers' attempt to create their own bargaining unit
bc-legislature-emilynorton-getty (2)
A strange debate took place last week in the B.C. legislature, Rob Shaw writes.

It has been a bizarre experience listening to B.C.'s political parties debate a bill that would trample the unionization rights of the province’s in-house lawyers.

On the one side, the BC NDP, for which unionization rights have been a bedrock principle for decades, is twisting itself into knots trying to justify legislation known as Bill 5, which would stomp out a unionization drive by more than 300 civil lawyers who want to form their own bargaining unit.

On the other side, the Opposition BC United, which has an odious history of treating unions like gum on its shoe, is lamenting the infringement upon workers rights with the kind of righteousness that makes your head spin.

The role reversals are stunning. It’s like moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. It’s like crossing over into…

“It’s kind of like the Twilight Zone in here right now, frankly,” said BC Green MLA Adam Olsen, who stood to speak to the bill Thursday.

“Who would have ever thought — anybody who's been tracking British Columbia politics over the last 20, 30, 40 years — that they would have heard BC United, formerly known as the BC Liberal Party, quoting rather damning press release quotes back at the BC NDP government… (from) other labour organizations and other lawyers who are criticizing the BC NDP for attempting to ram through legislation that undermines workers' rights to freely negotiate with who they wish to organize with.”

Leave it to Olsen, one of the most skilled orators in the house, to put a sharp point on the hypocrisy on display.

“This BC NDP government has long claimed to stand for the rights of workers and for workers to choose their own union,” he said.

“They're meant, or they at least fashion themselves, as the workers' party, a labour party, and yet this is what we're doing with our own public servants.”

The legislation “is an embarrassment for both this so-called progressive government and so-called workers' party,” he added.

Bill 5 would invalidate the B.C. Government Lawyers Association’s attempts to form their own union at the Labour Relations Board, and instead force them to join the Professional Employees Association (which, in no small bit of irony, also opposes the bill).

If any other employer in the province tried to curtail the rights of employees to freely associate and unite in a union of their choosing, it would be deemed a clear violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The BC NDP knows this well, because the party has fought for this very thing for decades. Now, in its sixth year in power, it has suddenly become inconvenient to live up to those ideals.

The province’s entire organized labour sector opposes the move, including the two largest and strong NDP allies, the BC Federation of Labour and the BC Government Employees Union.

The protestations appear to have fallen largely on deaf ears within the NDP. Finance Minister Katrine Conroy is quarterbacking the bill and hasn’t shown much sympathy for the lawyers.

Conroy had paused the bill for some brief internal negotiation a couple of months ago, but then recently declared the differences irreconcilable and brought back the legislation Thursday with the intent to ram it into law before the spring session ends this week.

The only New Democrat to attempt to defend Bill 5 has been Environment Minister George Heyman, a former three-term president of the BCGEU, who cashed in all his union credentials and then some on the floor of the house Thursday to try and turn the narrative.

“The Public Service Labour Relations Act is really clear,” he said. “If you work directly for the provincial government in the public service of British Columbia, unless you are excluded from collective bargaining rights as a union, you will join one of three unions: the BCGEU, the PEA, or the Nurses Union.

“That piece of legislation has been in place for 50 years.”

He pointed to “non-proliferation” rulings by the Labour Relations Board that prevent too many people from starting too many unions, which would then “bargain independently and strike independently and reach independent, separate collective agreements, because that destabilizes labour relations,” said Heyman.

It’d be fascinating to watch the George Heyman of 2023 hop in a time machine and sell that line to the George Heyman of the mid-2000s, who was once a fiery defender of the rights of workers to freely associate however they want.

“I understand what government lawyers want,” Heyman said on Thursday. “I might even understand why they would want it. But there are sound principles in labour relations to indicate that proliferation of bargaining units is simply ineffective for both workers, employers and the public.

“Let's be absolutely clear. You can't pick and choose that you're going to give one group the ability to organize a separate union outside of the Public Service Labour Relations Act, but somehow deny it to other groups. Life and the law do not work that way.”

Except, though, when they do.

A previous BC NDP government in the late 1990s learned this the hard way when they went toe-to-toe with more than 300 Crown prosecutors during contract negotiations that sparked multiple days of strikes and shut down courts.

The NDP eventually capitulated to an arbitrator’s recommendation that the BC Crown Counsel Association become the exclusive bargaining agent for the lawyers —exactly what, 23 years later, government’s civil lawyers are asking for as well.

The whole scenario is on the verge of playing out again, with the Government Lawyers Association on Monday expected to outline its first round of job action, along with plans to challenge Bill 5 as unconstitutional.

A strike or service withdrawal by civil lawyers wouldn’t shut down the courts like in 2000. But it would affect the legal advice civil lawyers provide to ministries, as well as the government's ability to craft legislation and regulations.

That would be enormously frustrating for Premier David Eby, who is attempting to move as quickly as possible in enacting his political agenda. Without the lawyers required to write his bills, or craft his cabinet orders, he’d see his work grind to a halt.

Perhaps the threat of such a scenario will be enough to wake up BC New Democrats to the issue. Bill 5 not only undermines their party’s principles, and threatens to repeat a fight the party lost two decades ago — it could easily disrupt their current political agenda too.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]