Monday, February 23, 2004

Unions, governments head toward bizarre showdown

By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - RMH Teleservices wasn't ready to roll over when the BCGEU tried to sign up the 1,600 workers at its Surrey call centre.
The union launched its organizing campaign; the company campaigned right back. And things got weird, and ugly.
The resulting dispute has created the Liberals' first big battle with unions over a private sector issue. They're threatening to boycott the Labour Relations Board over its support for the company's tactics.
The Liberals have had skirmishes with private sector unions, but generally they have steered a moderate enough course to avoid the kind of major battles it's had with public sector unions.
But business did win some changes, including labour code revisions that give managers much freer rein to communicate with employees during a union drive.
Code changes in the Harcourt era had strictly limited company's right to respond to a union organizing effort. The aim was to prevent companies from intimidating employees so they wouldn't join a union. The effect was to give the union's supporters a free hand to promote the benefits of certifying, while leaving managers convinced that any but the most limited comment would see them slapped with an unfair labour practice complaint. That could result in automatic certification, or a mandatory vote even if the union had signed up only a few people.
The Liberals opened things up in 2002. And RMH is the first company to push the envelope under the new rules.
Some of the happenings were just weird. RMH projected changing messages on the walls of the huge workplace constantly for a week to encourage employees not to sign up, a move a touch reminiscent of 1984.
Some seemed harmless enough. Management handed out frisbees and other toys with printed messages questioning the union claims.
And some were ugly. The company's big Surrey parking lot was the scene of several encounters where anti-union employees abused women organizers with vicious and obscene insults.
The result was a string of union complaints to the LRB, charging the company with unfair labour practices in its attempts to persuade employees not to sign a union membership card.
My guess is that the complaints would have been upheld in the past.
But LRB vice-chair Ken Saunders tossed them, finding that the company's activities hadn't violated the labour code. Employees had no reason to feel coerced or threatened by the company's efforts, he said, and that's the test.
Business leaders approve. Phil Hochstein of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association says companies should be able to make their case, like the union, and the employees can decide. "They're not children," he adds.
Union leaders don't. BCGEU head George Heyman says the campaign - especially the parking lot abuse - was threatening. The employees were left believing that the company was dead opposed to a union. They were left to wonder, the union suggests, whether the phone centre would close if employees unionized.
The unions have asked the Labour Board to reconsider the decision. If not, the BC Federation of Labour has threatened a boycott of the LRB, the referee in labour disputes.
One way or another, the issue is going to end up back in the lap of Labour Minister Graham Bruce. When he gave companies more latitude to communicate, Bruce said some ground rules might be needed. He raised the idea of supervised forums where both company and union would get a chance to make their pitch.
None of those regulations ever appeared. Bruce says he was waiting to see how the changes worked out on the ground.
It's time for some action. The Liberals have done an adept job at changing the labour environment without sending the pendulum swinging back wildly toward the employers' side. That stability is good for the province.
But in the RMH ruling, the pendulum has taken too big a swing. Bruce needs to find the balance point again.
Footnote: Both sides have have signed on for this battle, with most major business organizations planning to apply for intervenor status if the labour board does hold a gearing to reconsider the decision. It's being viewed by many unions and employers as a test of where the Liberals are likely to go with their next round of labour changes.

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