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If you want a union, vote for it

Union shenanigans.

Everyone agrees what democracy ought to look like when it comes to picking governments: secret ballots, free speech and no dirty tricks.

Yet there’s no such unanimity about what workplace democracy should look like. When certifying a union, two very different models are still battling it out across Canada: automatic card checks and secret ballots. Lately, it seems card checks are back in ascendency. Perhaps the story of the $20-million garden shed in Baden, Ont., can help shine new light on what’s fair and what’s not.

First a bit of background. Prior to 1977, every province accepted card-check certification as the means to recognizing a union: once a specified majority of workers signed union cards, certification was complete, no vote necessary. Since then, many provinces have implemented mandatory secret balloting, requiring workers to vote in private before certification can proceed. Some provinces, such as B.C. and Manitoba, have vacillated between the two systems. This past summer, Newfoundland abandoned balloting (which it adopted in 1994) and went back to automatic card check.

Unions advocate card checks because it allows them to sign up workers in secret and then surprise firms with a fait accompli. Employers prefer balloting because it offers them a chance to make their case to workers during the voting period. Unions complain that the election format is simply an opportunity for bosses to unleash a host of dirty tricks on workers and organizers. So while most people consider secret voting to be a fundamental component of democratic government, the Canadian Labour Congress calls it “a threat to workers rights.”

And yet card checks are just as open to abuse. Which brings us back to that garden shed.

One Saturday this past December, the Regional Municipality of Waterloo, located about 100 km west of Toronto, sent two workers to build a storage shed behind a library in the small town of Baden. While their co-workers were enjoying their weekend, these two workers thus constituted the entire workplace. And because they signed union cards for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, this triggered automatic union certification within the municipal government, since Ontario allows card checks in the construction industry (plus public bodies involved in construction). This clever pair of shed builders has thus been able to impose the carpenters union on all relevant regional employees, who had no say in the matter because they were at home on the day in question. And those other workers, by the way, were already unionized, making it a sneak attack not just on the employer, but a rival union as well. Solidarity forever.

Failing a low-percentage appeal by the municipality, the knock-on effect for local taxpayers will be substantial. Closed-shop rules imposed by the carpenters’ union dictate public tendering policies, and so most future municipal construction contracts can only be bid by approved union firms, dramatically reducing the number of eligible bidders. When the same trick was pulled on Hamilton in 2005, city staff found the pool of potential firms dropped by 90% and costs rose at least 10%. In Waterloo Region, this one shed could end up costing local taxpayers $20 million a year in higher construction costs. (Full disclosure: I’m one of those unlucky taxpayers.)

Regardless of how one defines democracy, there’s clearly an injustice afoot when two workers are able to certify an entire workforce simply because they happened to sign union cards on a Saturday when everyone else had the day off. That all those workers were already represented by another union makes the whole matter as farcical as it is undemocratic.

Whether Newfoundland’s recent switch back to automatic certification represents the beginning of a new national trend or not, there should be no illusions that card checks are somehow more representative of workers’ interests than secret ballots. If the goal is real democracy, nothing beats an actual vote.

Peter Shawn Taylor is a writer specializing in economic issues