Three women conversing in a hallway

BC Government and Its Lawyers Head Toward Unionization Showdown

By  Zak Vescera, The Tyee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Lawyers working for the B.C. government are threatening to sue it over a new law that would remove their right to choose their own union.

Bill 5 became law on  Thursday after months of fighting between the government and the BC  Government Lawyers Association, which applied last year to be recognized  as an independent union representing about 300 members. 

The legislation lifts a ban on unionization for the lawyers, who advise government on new laws and represent it in civil court.

But it forces them to join the Professional Employees Association, an existing union, rather than establishing a new union.

The government has argued  the law is part of longstanding practices to streamline negotiations by  reducing the number of unions bargaining with the government. But it’s  been criticized by the labour movement.  

Gareth Morley, the  association’s president, argues the bill was unfairly used to quash  their certification application to the Labour Relations Board. 

He says the association intends to  challenge it in court, arguing it violated their Charter rights to  pursue collective bargaining. 

“If the bill passes, we have to challenge it as unconstitutional,” Morley said in an interview on Wednesday. 

He also said his members would begin a  “work to rule” campaign by refusing overtime. He said members also would  not rule out other job action.  

“The government says we don’t have a right  to strike. We say we do. That’s a legal issue that’s disputed between  the parties,” Morley said. 

In a written statement from the Finance Ministry, a spokesperson said ministries were prepared for job action. 

“We expect that in the event of an illegal  job action, the main service impact would involve a delay in providing  legal advice to a ministry, however, the legal branch of every ministry  has a contingency plan in place,” the statement said. 

The dispute dates back to a decades-old law. 

In 1973, the NDP government passed the  Public Service Labour Relations Act, a bill defining how the province  bargains with its employees.   

The bill set out a framework for how the government would collectively bargain with its employees.

It gave them a right to strike. But it also  mandated the government would only bargain with three unions: the BC  General Employees’ Union, the Professional Employees Association and the  BC Nurses’ Union.

The government worried that having too many  unions representing small groups of employees would ratchet up the risk  of labour instability and lead to disruptive strikes. If one small  group of union workers picketed a government building, other union  workers might refuse to cross that picket line, impeding public  services. 

The bill also said certain workers couldn’t join a union, including lawyers. 

In 1992, a group of those lawyers formed the BCGLA with the goal of one day becoming their own union. Various efforts failed.

But last year the association applied to  the BC Labour Relations Board to form their own union, citing a  different piece of legislation.

Morley said the lawyers want their own  union because of the specific circumstances of their profession and to  guarantee protection against any form of pressure from government. 

But months later, as the two parties were debating the issue at the labour board, the B.C. government introduced Bill 5.

The law amends the Public Service Labour  Relations Act so that lawyers are now allowed to join a union. But in  practice it means the union they join must be the Professional Employees  Association. 

The PEA, which represents a registered  professionals working for the government, faces the possibility of  representing 300 new members who had not chosen the union. 

“We’re certainly cognizant that this isn’t  the result the BCGLA and their members wanted,” PEA president Scott  McCannell said today. 

McCannell said the Professional Employees  Association will now begin talks with the government to see how the  lawyers fit into their existing collective agreement. 

McCannell said he recognizes the lawyers  will still fight to form their own union but says the PEA will do their  “level best” to represent them in the meantime. 

He says the PEA supports the BCGLA’s bid to become its own union.

The BC Federation of Labour has also backed the BCGLA’s right to form its own union. So has the BCGEU. 

The bill, first introduced in February, was rapidly passed into law in the legislature this month. 

During debate, the pro-union NDP government  faced accusations of being anti-labour from the BC United party, which  fought constantly with organized labour during its 16 years in power as  the BC Liberals. 

 “It’s kind of like the twilight zone in here right now, frankly,” Green Party MLA Adam Olsen said in debate last week. 

“For the record, let’s outline what’s  happening here,” Olsen later said. “The B.C. government lawyers want to  form their own union, as is their right. The BC NDP government is  forcing them into a union that they didn’t pick. That very union, the  Professional Employees Association, doesn’t want the government lawyers  in their union against their wishes and stands with them in their right  to pick their own union.” 

Bill 5 was not introduced by Labour  Minister Harry Bains but by Finance Minister Katrine Conroy. Bains did  not rise to defend the bill.

In her remarks, Conroy argued Bill 5 gave  the lawyers’ association a number of the things it said it wanted: the  right to bargain for wages, protection from dismissal and the ability to  go on strike. 

The only NDP MLA besides Conroy who spoke to it was George Heyman, minister of environment and a former president of the BCGEU.

Heyman argued the bill fit within a  longstanding practice of preventing a proliferation of bargaining units  in the public sector. 

“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,” Heyman said. 

Morley, though, argues it is not likely  there will be a proliferation of bargaining units just because his  association becomes a union. 

“I think that all parties ought to be  committed to the principal that workers choose unions, not employers.  But I think it’s especially the case for the NDP,” Morley said.

Top image credit: Three lawyers – photo by Barb Howe via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

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