Ontario unionists and the new workplaces legislation | What's Left

The Ontario Liberal Government has wasted no time putting forward its legislation based on the Changing Workplaces Review report released on May 30. It comes in the form of a single piece of legislation called Bill 148: Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act.

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None of what is outlined below is guaranteed to come into law as written. The government has allocated the entire summer (and likely September) to debate and attract amendments to the legislation. There will be intense pressure from the right-wing and Capital to abandon many of these laws. There will also be challenges in getting all the unions to push for the changes needed to make it as good as it sounds, such as removing some of the fine print that blunt the effectiveness of many of the provisions.

Bill 148 amends two pieces of legislation: the Labour Relations Act (LRA), which regulates the system under which unions operate and the Employment Standards Act (ESA), regulating working conditions for all employees, including those who are unionized. It also increases the minimum wage.

It is important to know that the ESA has historically set the floor for all employees regardless of what is in their collective agreements. But, the ESA also has an extensive list of those who are excluded from its protections including farm workers who have yet another piece of legislation governing their limited rights.

The regime of labour relations and employee rights in Ontario is a patchwork of legislation and many employees are either directly or indirectly excluded from certain protections. The exclusions make no sense except in the light of history of dominant political power by capital and employers in this province.

For most workers, the most significant changes are going to be in the following areas:

  1. Minimum wage increase from the current $11.40 to $15 per hour January 1, 2019 for most workers. Liquor servers and students under 18 who work 28 hours or less will get a similar increase, but will still be excluded from $15.

  2. Increased vacation pay to 6% of wages and three weeks after five years of work with the same employer. There is also an expansion of personal emergency leave to 2 paid days and family medical leave.

  3. Overtime pay is now based on actual work performed.

  4. When working on a casual, part-time, or temporary basis, workers will be paid the same as full-time workers doing the same work.

  5. Temporary agency workers get a one week notice for layoff (or one week’s pay) after three months of work at an assignment.

  6. Workers scheduled for less than three hours will still be paid for three hours’ work at their regular rate of pay and must be given 48 hours notice of scheduling changes.

Other changes that workers should be interested in, but will apply only in certain circumstances include:

  1. A unionization process in which 55% of workers sign union cards in temporary agencies, home care and building services (food, security, and cleaning) industries.

  2. Protection from layoff from union certification to the first collective agreement.

  3. If an outsourced contract for food services, cleaning, or security is unionized and the contract moves from one company to another, the workers now keep their collective agreement instead of having to unionize and bargaining from scratch. This is commonly known as successor rights during contract flipping.

For union organizers, the provisions that may impact your work and membership are the following:

  1. It should be easier to address cases where employers are incorrectly classifying workers as “contractors”.

  2. When 20% of cards have been signed in a workplace, we would be able to request that the employer provide an employee list with contact information. This does not seem to apply to decertification as was outlined in the Changing Workplaces Review’s Final Report.

  3. First contract arbitration language includes an intensive mediation process. And, arbitration comes before a decertification process can be started.

  4. The Ontario Labour Relations Board will have the power to restructure bargaining units – even across unions. As it is written, this is likely to result in more resources being used to fight each other rather than organize new members. As such, unions must put more resources into organizing departments to deal with these situations.

There are many gains to celebrate in this legislation. No matter how cynical we all are about the Liberals’ reasons for promoting these changes, they will help a significant number of working people. However, like in the Changing Workplaces Review report, there are many things missing from this legislation. Workers’ advocates have outlined one essential piece in the stated mission of the government: to deal with structural changes in the nature of our work. Indeed, most of the positive changes are a return to previous labour relations regimes or should have been in effect already.

Some of the pieces missing include: multi-employer (sector-based) bargaining frameworks, extending “just cause” dismissal to all workers—that is not allowing arbitrary/political firings in the workplace, expanding the definition of “employee” to include dependent contractors, card-check certification, and extending paid sick days. The legislation also completely misses the point when it comes to building protection to the “new” class of precarious workers.

Clearly, the fight to build worker power in our economy must and will continue. As unionists, our efforts should not be focused to pushing the legislation even farther, to secure it into law, and to use any gains to organize more workers into democratic workplace associations.