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'Unfair labour practice': B.C. government accused of blocking union bid by its own lawyers

The BCGLA has filed unionization cards with the province's Labour Relations Board
Finance Minister Katrine Conroy

Lawyers for the B.C. government say the province has ended negotiations with them ahead of legislation they claim aims to block their right to form their own union.

The B.C. Government Lawyers Association (BCGLA) said negotiations included its proposal to have an independent expert in labour relations and justice system policy review the situation, a suggestion they said the government has rejected.

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 existed 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.

Conroy said at the time that it amends the Public Service Labour Relations Act to implement collective bargaining rights for government lawyers employed in the B.C. public service.

"The amendments enable these collective bargaining rights and ensure government maintains an appropriate public service bargaining framework that promotes continued labour stability and controls future costs," Conroy said.

However, the association said 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 — any right to unionize.

The BCGLA said a letter from the Legal Services Branch was sent late Tuesday to all employees under the attorney general that dismissed the BCGLA's bid to become a union.

"It's clear the government wants to control things, even if it has to unilaterally change the rules of the game to win," BCGLA president Gareth Morley said. "The employer knows the only way to get what it wants this time is to change the rules of the game with new legislation."

The BCGLA is looking at their options to fight Bill 5.

"We are shocked and dismayed that the government just won't listen to reason," Morley said. "The government acknowledges in the letter we do have the right to bargain our own contract, but the employer will not allow us to form our own union, even though we have followed all of the rules under the new certification legislation. That legislation was passed just last year by this very same government to smooth the certification process for groups like ours.

"When a group of employees chooses a union through the process the law sets out, then that employer has to bargain with their choice. If any other employer in the province interfered in a certification application to the LRB, it would be an unfair labour practice."

In a statement to Glacier Media, Conroy said government lawyers are important public service members.

"We support their right to belong to a union and bargain collectively," Conroy said. "The amendments create a clear path so government lawyers can access their collective bargaining rights while maintaining the three bargaining unit model set out by the Public Service Labour Relations Act."

The minister said that model has been used in B.C. for almost 50 years — and works.

"We've seen this in recent ratified agreements with a range of professionals, including nurses, scientists, engineers, corrections, foresters and social workers, Conroy said. "We are committed to supporting bargaining rights under the (Charter of Rights and Freedom) while maintaining the bargaining model that supports the critical public services people depend on."

The BCGLA said labour groups, including the B.C. Federation of Labour, the B.C. General Employees Union, the B.C. Crown Counsel Association and the PEA — the unit the government wants the government lawyers to join, oppose Bill 5.

The British Columbia branch of the Canadian Bar Association has also urged the withdrawal of Bill 5, saying it showed a lack of understanding of "the unique role of public sector lawyers who must ensure government acts in accordance with the rule of law."

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