TVO: Five things labour still wants from the Ontario government

Union reps say the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act 2017 is a step in the right direction — but they’ll fight for still more changes this summer

  OPSEU president Warren ‘Smokey’ Thomas says his union will push to make Bill 148 more inclusive. (Nathan Denette/CP)

OPSEU president Warren ‘Smokey’ Thomas says his union will push to make Bill 148 more inclusive. (Nathan Denette/CP)

This month, the Ontario government introduced Bill 148 — the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act 2017. It includes a $15 minimum wage to be implemented by 2019, equal pay for part-time and full-time workers doing the same job, and three hours’ pay for workers whose shifts get rescheduled on less than 48 hours’ notice.

Despite all the changes, labour groups across the province argue the government could’ve done more. “It’s a good start,” says Warren ‘Smokey’ Thomas, president of OPSEU. “But labour — my union included — will push for it to be more inclusive.”

The bill has passed its first reading and will now go to committee for hearings and public consultation over the summer.

“Bill 148 is missing some key points that they still have time to make changes to, and as they go through committee hearings we’re going to be going back again to speak about those changes that are desperately needed,” says Naureen Rizvi, Ontario regional director for Unifor.

“This is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the next 20-year trajectory of how people live and work in Ontario,” she says.

Here are five things labour groups want to see from the government.

1. Workers should only once have to say they want to join a union

“One of the main things that we’re missing, and that you’ll hear from all labour bodies, is that we were hoping for a return to a card-based certification system,” Rizvi says, “and that didn’t take place.”

Card-based certification is one way to make bargaining units official; workers simply sign a card indicating their intent to join. It used to be that once a union had 55 per cent of a company’s employees on board, the Ontario Labour Relations Board would certify the bargaining unit.

But in the mid-’90s, the Harris government added another step: Now, once a union has at least 40 per cent of employees signed up, it can submit an application to the OLRB. Then, a week later, employees vote, and if the majority are in favour, the board hands out its certification. But during that week in between, employers (who now know their workers intend to unionize) can incentivize or intimidate them against joining.

Bill 148 reinstates the one-step process, but for three sectors only: temporary help agencies, building services, and home care and community services.

“It’s not clear to us what the justification is for limiting the card-based certification to these sectors,” Rizvi says, “particularly if the goal is to support employee choice to engage in collective bargaining, especially for vulnerable workers in precarious employment.”

Labour ministry spokesperson Michael Speers said the sectors were singled out because they’re particularly susceptible to precarious work; employees often work at different sites day-to-day; and the work itself is short-term, making it difficult to organize bargaining units.

“Given the precariousness of the workers, combined with the geographical and temporal challenges associated with organizing these workers, it was determined that card check certification is the only meaningful way to ensure that these workers have access to unionization,” he wrote in an email.

2. Unionized contract workers shouldn’t lose their agreement with each new contract

“When you have contracted services that are re-tendered, and when you award them to a new service provider, it wipes out all of the bargaining rights,” Rizvi says. “We see this in the school bus industry every time there’s a bid for a contract and the consortium gives the tender to another school bus company. Although they may hire all the same people that are running the same routes that they did two years back, they will have lost their collective bargaining rights, and their benefits and wages start at the bottom again.”

Thomas uses the example of contract cleaning companies: “They’re notorious for contracts getting flipped by whoever’s contracting it out just to avoid giving raises. It is a huge problem. If you sell any business, you should have to take the workers that come with it, union or not.”

Bill 148 includes successor rights — the continuation of collective agreements, even when services are contracted out to a new business — but only for workers in building services. That’s based on the recommendation of the Changing Workplaces Review, a government-commissioned 2016 report that formed the basis for Bill 148, which said the province should extend successor rights to building services and publicly funded home care sectors because their workers are particularly vulnerable.

3. No one should be excluded from the Labour Relations Act

Domestic, agricultural, and horticultural workers are not covered under the LRA, so they don’t have the same opportunities as other workers to bargain collectively. Bill 148 could have changed that, Rizvi says, but it doesn’t.

Take farm workers, for example, who bargain under the Agricultural Employees Protection Act instead. The Changing Workplaces Review notes that “the AEPA creates an illusion that there is some potential effective voice and some protection for farm workers, whereas the reality in Ontario is that there is effectively neither of these.”

Architects, dentists, land surveyors, doctors, and lawyers are also shut out of the LRA — possibly because they are protected through self-regulated professional bodies. “As well,” the review adds, “their exclusion may have seemed appropriate given the conflict between a professional’s continuing duty and obligation to his or her patients or clients and the right to strike.” Still, the review’s authors argue that these professionals should have the right to freedom of association like every other worker. But this right was not included in Bill 148.

CUPE notes that some of these same workers are also exempted from protections under the Employment Standards Act. The province has said it plans to conduct a review of ESA exemptions and special industry rules this fall.

4. Victims of domestic violence should be entitled to more leave

Under Bill 148, all Ontario workers will receive up to 10 days of personal leave — whether for illness, injury, or family emergencies — with two of those days being paid. Victims of sexual or domestic violence are also entitled to this.

But Rizvi says the bill doesn’t go far enough; she notes that Alberta has given a separate 10 days leave for victims of domestic violence. “We rolled it into our 10 personal emergency days. I think that is significantly a big slam for women. It could be men as well.”

5. Franchise workers should be able to bargain together

When a group of franchise employees decides to unionize, their collective agreement applies only to that franchise location. Even if the same owner operates another franchise in the province, the workers at that franchise must bargain separately for an agreement. Ontario labour groups including Unifor and CUPE argue this is inefficient and puts workers at a disadvantage; instead, they want “broad-based bargaining,” whereby groups of employees from different franchises could come together to bargain collectively for better working conditions.