There are a few different structures for union certification. The most general one is that, if the union can show that it has the support of at least 40% of the bargaining unit (i.e. the group of employees whom it would represent), the matter can be put to a vote. If the union gets 50% plus one support, it becomes the certified bargaining agent. The 40% support is usually shown through signed union cards. (In the construction industry, it is even possible that, if the majority of the employees have signed union cards, the union can be certified without a vote. This is called "card-based certification")
Many employers do not want to have to deal with unions, yet the Labour Relations Act prohibits employers from taking certain actions which would interfere with unions or the exercise of rights under the Act - "unfair labour practices". If the employer engages in unfair labour practices and this interferes with an organizing campaign, there are a number of remedies available to the union, such as holding a new representation vote and providing them with whatever access they need to the employees prior to the same...or, if these remedies would not suffice, remedial certification is now available.
The logic is this: The employer has a great deal of power over employees. If the employer actively takes steps to frighten or intimidate employees to oppose the union, then it may be impossible for any attempts at persuasion by the union to overcome the employer's intimidation. In such cases, the only way to get past the employer's intimidation is to certify the union even notwithstanding that it does not have the support of the members of the bargaining unit.
The most recent such decision out of the Ontario Labour Relations Board was in LIUNA v. 1652472 Ontario Inc. That case involved a pretty typical dispute about the termination of a union supporter.
Organizing campaigns often begin when the employer hires a new employee with union connections. Of course, the employer doesn't know about this, and it is in fact illegal to refuse to hire somebody because they have union connections. But the new employee goes to great lengths to keep this secret, and quietly begins discussing the union with co-workers to try to gain support.
The trouble - for the employer, as it turns out - is that union insiders often quickly develop adversarial relationships with management for reasons other than their union organizing efforts. Whether the union supporter is a new employee (whose priorities are obviously something other than demonstrating exemplary dedication and professional competence) or an existing employee (who would usually support the union because of an existing acrimonious relationship with management), it is neither unusual nor surprising that management frequently ends up disciplining and/or terminating union supporters in organizing campaigns. Then, the union simply has to allege that the employee was terminated because of their involvement with the union, and the employer bears the onus of proving that, in fact, union involvement had no bearing on the termination.
In most cases, as in this one, the fight on the facts becomes whether or not the employer knew or suspected that the employee was involved with the union.
(I've seen cases, however, in which there was reason to question whether or not a disciplined employee even was involved with the union prior to the discipline, where it looks like even the employee didn't know about the organizing efforts until approached after the discipline, and then alleging that the discipline was motivated by anti-union animus.)
In this LIUNA case, the foreman insisted that he had no knowledge of the employee's union involvement: The employee was fired for performance issues, and because the other guys on the team didn't like working with him. The Board didn't believe him...well, the Board accepted that he wasn't popular, and that the other guys didn't like him, but nonetheless the Board found it unlikely that he was fired when he was without his union involvement being a motivating factor.
That, alone, will usually be enough for remedial certification. But that wasn't everything. In addition, there was a confrontation between a union organizer and the foreman on the construction site, which the Board found was an effort to alienate the union. And then there was a letter which the employer read aloud to most of the employees to express their feelings about the union.
What an employer can and can't say to employees is the subject of much jurisprudence. An employer is allowed to say that it opposes unionization. It is allowed to educate employees about the process for unionization (i.e. to ensure that they know about the potential for card-based certification, that they may not in fact get a subsequent chance to vote aye or nay if they sign enough cards). But it cannot make or imply any threat to job security. This prohibition stands even if the 'threats' are nothing more than objectively true and verifiable facts - employers have been found to have breached the Act simply by walking through the numbers and showing why the additional costs of doing business with a union (and there are additional costs) would prevent the facility from continuing to be economically viable. There is also case law finding that an employer, when asked by employees whether or not job security would be endangered, breached the Act by refusing to answer.
The letter in this case contained the following sentence:
From my perspective, there are a lot of down-sides to unionization. We will have less flexibility in terms of where we work, the work that we do, how we structure our days and how we price projects so that we are the successful contractor.The Board interpreted this as a threat to job security. Given all the factors, the Board found that the Act had been breached, and granted remedial certification.
Food for Thought
There are obvious policy concerns with remedial certification. While it can and has been argued that this is a way to ensure that employers "don't get away with" their unfair labour practices, thus discouraging unfair labour practices, that casts the certification itself as a punitive action. If punishment is appropriate in a given case, the ordinary sphere of quasi-criminal punishment should suffice: Hoisting a bargaining agent upon workers who don't want it is not an appropriate way of punishing the employer.
No, the real objective must be compensatory. Yet who are we concerned about compensating? The workers? Perhaps, but there is something patronizing and unsettling about saying to workers, "Because you're being kept from choosing what's best, we're taking the choice away from you." Perhaps more concerning is that remedial certification is automatic. The union need not show that it would have won the vote but for the employer's unfair labour practice. If you look at it as a way of compensating the workers, then you have to presuppose that workers, acting without coercion, will *always* want a union. And that is simply and obviously not true. In this case, on the facts as found by the Board it seems like a fairly safe bet that LIUNA was going to have a hard time winning a certification vote: Their insider was not well liked at all in the bargaining unit.
So it strikes me that the real objective of remedial certification is to compensate the union itself. Which concerns me: When the union's interests are put ahead of the interests of the employees, it seems to be a perversion of the very purposes of the Labour Relations Act.
Add to this the 'entrapment' potential for a union quietly engaging in an organizing campaign, and there are real policy concerns.
This blog is not intended to, and does not, provide legal advice to any person in respect of any particular legal issue, and does not create a solicitor-client relationship with any readers, but rather provides general legal information. If you have a legal issue or possible legal issue, contact a lawyer.