By Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
About 350 lawyers working for the B.C. government say legislation introduced Thursday undermines their ongoing efforts to form a union.
Bill 5, tabled by Finance Minister Katrine Conroy, would force the lawyers to join an existing public sector union if they chose to organize rather than allowing them to form a new union.
In a statement, Conroy said the bill “clears an important space” for lawyers to unionize under the Public Service Labour Relations Act.
But Gareth Morley, the president of the BC Government Lawyers Association, said the legislation undercuts the impartial process at the BC Labour Relations Board.
Morley said the lawyers will now vote on “some form of job action.”
The association applied to become a union in November with the support of more than 70 per cent of workers, who represent the government in civil cases and provide legal advice on new laws.
Morley said earlier the association had played by the rules in its union drive and the government “wants to change those rules in the middle of the game.”
“And definitely anyone in the labour movement should be concerned about that, because it will undermine the integrity of the process of determining whether workers want a union or not.”
The legislation comes after weeks of tension between the lawyers’ association and government. Government officials had hinted at changes to the law in letters to Morley but said they would only discuss details if he signed a non-disclosure agreement.
The dispute is partly based on legislation from 1973, when the government of then-NDP premier Dave Barrett passed the Public Service Labour Relations Act. The law created a framework for government bargaining with its employees.
Today, employees covered by that act are members of three unions: the BC General Employees’ Union, which represents most government employees; the Professional Employees Association, which represents professional staff like agrologists and pharmacists; and the BC Nurses’ Union.
The bill also excluded certain public employees from joining those unions, including lawyers.
In 1992, the BC Government Lawyers Association was formed, with the goal of eventually becoming a union. The government, though, has resisted that, arguing the lawyers can only join the Professional Employees Association if they want to unionize.
But Morley says his members want their own union, in part because they want to negotiate contract guarantees protecting them if they give government advice that doesn’t align with its policy goals.
“We want to make sure lawyers in government have that degree of independence so that they can tell government something they won’t want to hear,” Morley said.
Morley and the association saw an opening last year when government passed Bill 10. That legislation meant workers who wanted to unionize only needed to get 55 per cent of their colleagues to sign certification cards.
The association argues that overrode the 1973 ban on unionizing.
In November the lawyers’ association members applied to the BC Labour Relations Board to certify their union.
They also sued the government in B.C. Supreme Court over the 1973 legislation, arguing that they had a right to unionize under the B.C. Labour Relations Code.
The legislation introduced Thursday would amend the Public Service Labour Relations Act so most association members are recognized as employees and could now join one of the unions it recognizes.
The bill doesn’t compel the lawyers’ association members to join one of those three unions. But Morley says it is clearly designed to push his members to join the Professional Employees Association.
PEA executive director Scott McCannell agrees the law “appears to create a pathway” for BCGLA members to join his union.
But he says he supports the right of those lawyers to form their own group.
“I think our perspective has been that we are certainly supporting the BCGLA and their desire to be represented by a union, and to be able to choose which union that is,” McCannell said.
Morley says the legislation comes after weeks of hints from the provincial government.
On Jan. 24 Morley received a letter from Alyson Blackstock, an assistant deputy minister in the BC Public Service Agency.
Blackstock asked Morley to meet in-person to talk about a “policy proposal” affecting association members, under the condition Morley signed a “confidentially agreement.”
On Jan. 27, Morley wrote Premier David Eby asking him to confirm government would not amend the legislation to change the rules around government lawyers’ unionization.
Eby wrote back saying he could not speak to any coming legislation because the lawyers’ association was suing the government.
“It is disappointing to learn that you have declined the offer to consult,” Eby wrote on Monday. “However, I can advise you that the BCGLA will be notified in the event the government adopts any legislative amendments that may impact its members. Further, I understand the Public Service Agency will consult the BCGLA on how the legislation will be implemented by the government as the employer where possible and as appropriate.”
On Tuesday Blackstock wrote to Morley again, this time directly noting the possibility of “legislative changes.”
“I reiterate our offer to consult with you under confidentiality restrictions on the policy proposal project which may discuss legislative changes that could impact the BCGLA,” she wrote.
Morley says government should let the Labour Relations Board decide if his union has legal standing.
“The difference between a real union and a fake union is that the employees chose the real union, and this is a situation where we’re being pushed into a union that we didn’t choose,” Morley said.