The B.C. government’s in-house lawyers say the NDP government is forcing them into a union not of their own choosing.
The 350 lawyers, members of the BC Government Lawyers Association (BCGLA), have been looking to form their own union. Members voted 70 per cent in favour of such action.
The BCGLA advocates for the civil lawyers who represent the provincial government in court, provide it with legal advice and draft provincial legislation. The group has been in existence for 30 years and has filed unionization cards with the province’s Labour Relations Board (LRB).
On Feb. 9, B.C. Finance Minister Katrine Conroy introduced Bill 5 (the Public Service Labour Relations Amendment Act).
The association says the bill could force members into the Professional Employees Association (PEA). The association asserts the move would deny those who draft the laws — including the Labour Relations Code itself — any right to unionize at all.
“No employer in the province could do what the government is doing,” said BCGLA president Gareth Morley. “If the LRB tells other employers they have to bargain in good faith with the chosen representatives of their work force, then that is what they do. But the NDP government has decided it wants to rewrite the rules in the middle of the game.”
The ministry, however, said the new bill removes the general exclusion of lawyers from collective bargaining that currently exists under the Public Service Labour Relations Act (PSLRA) and recognizes their charter right to exercise freedom of association.
“The BCGLA has requested that their members be granted collective bargaining rights and amendments to the PSLRA are required to meet that request,” the ministry said.
The association said the LRB has received arguments from both sides now but added that the Labour Relations Code and the Charter of Rights both guarantee it a right to unionize if it has the support of its members.
The BCGLA said the government admitted to the board that the lawyers would have a right to unionize under the regular law but said it should be denied.
"In a free society, workers choose their unions, not employers and not governments," said BCGLA secretary Margo Foster. "We will do whatever we can to stop this blatantly unconstitutional attack on freedom of association. In 2018, the John Horgan government said they would not force us into a union picked by government. That promise has been broken.”
She said the PEA supports the lawyers’ right to choose their own bargaining agent.
“Any legislation interfering with the LRB’s process for recognizing unions should be of concern to all British Columbians,” added Morley. “Because government doubted its ability to win at the LRB, they simply opted to change the rules. Whatever you think of unions, that has to cause every British Columbian concern about the power of a government that wants its own way — even if it goes against the rule of law or its own principles.”
The ministry said Bill 5 would not have any current impact on the terms and conditions of lawyers’ employment. Rather, it said, the bill is enabling legislation to allow lawyers to participate in collective bargaining under the PSLRA.
“These amendments ensure that government continues to have an appropriate bargaining framework to accommodate the unique business and operational needs of providing government services to the public, while preserving the right of collective bargaining for public service employees,” the ministry said. And, the government statement added, the LRB matter is a separate process the new legislation does not interfere with.
In November, the BCGLA had hoped that, with the passage of Bill 10 earlier in 2022, government lawyers would be entitled to start negotiating their own contract, pay and working conditions like any other union.
But, they said, they were prevented from doing so by a provision of the PSLRA originally passed in 1973.
The BCGLA has long maintained that the BC Crown Counsel Association negotiates its own contracts as a bargaining unit with the government. Further, it said, provincial legal aid lawyers in B.C. chose the union representing them.
The BCGLA said debate on Bill 5 is expected next week but no date appears on the legislative calendar.