Union drive at private college shows need for labour law reforms

The news that the 40 faculty at Inlingua ESL College have been certified by the BC Labour Relations Board is great news all-around. For the faculty members, it's a great step forward, one that will put them on a sound footing and a more respectful relationship with their employer. For the Organizing Committee at Education Training Employees Association (ETEA), Local 21, the news is another example of how hard work and dedication to organizing can make a real difference in the lives of faculty and staff in BC's private post-secondary institutions. For FPSE, the successful organizing drive shows how the plan adopted at our May 2012 convention to put staff, legal resources as well as targeted funding to support Local 21's work in this area is succeeding.

However, like previous organizing efforts in private post-secondary institutions, the experience at Inlingua ESL shows that BC's labour laws are in need of major reforms. Despite a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2007 in which the Court noted that collective bargaining is an integral right for every worker, the laws that define those rights in BC tilt heavily in favour of employers, to the detriment of workers in this province.

BC law requires that even though a majority of workers at a workplace demonstrate-through the signing of union cards-that they want to unionize, they must submit to a government supervised vote before the union certification is granted. During the ten day period between when the certification notice is filed and the vote takes place, the employer is able to meet with workers and talk about the union drive. It's an intimidating time for every worker. In effect, BC's Labour Code gives an employer one last chance to undermine the organizing effort. In the case of Inlingua and other private colleges that have unionized in the last few years, the employer pressure tactics have not worked.

But workers shouldn't have to endure that kind of pressure. That's one of the reasons why unions like FPSE are making the case for much needed reforms to BC's labour laws. Unionizing is a decision for workers to make. Allowing employers to interfere with that decision only serves to undermine a balanced labour-management relationship that needs to be in place from the beginning.

Keep in mind too that once the union certification is granted, the process of negotiating a first collective agreement can often be just as challenging as the initial organizing drive. Employers who are steadfastly opposed to unionizing have found ways to make the first agreement process protracted and frustrating, conditions that are designed to undermine free collective bargaining and effectively neutralize the effort to establish fair first agreements.

There is an urgent need for labour law reforms in this area as well. Prior to 2002, there were mechanisms in place to help move new certifications towards a mediated first agreement. Those measures were removed by the BC Liberals, giving employers additional tools to fight organizing drives.

BC needs to restore balance to its labour laws, balance that reflects the principles supported by Canada's Supreme Court when it comes to collective bargaining. The experience of private post-secondary faculty organizing efforts shows how the current Labour Code fails to protect those principles and, ultimately, fails to respect the right we all have to free collective bargaining.

About FPSE

The Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC is the provincial voice for faculty and staff in BC teaching universities, colleges and institutes, and in private sector institutions. FPSE member locals, represented by Presidents' Council and the Executive, represent over 10,000 faculty and staff at 18 public and 12 private sector institutions.