Lawyers working for the provincial government are formally taking their employer to court over the right to choose their own union.
Members of the BC Government Lawyers Association rallied outside the legislature Thursday (July 13) afternoon in announcing a constitutional challenge of Bill 5.
The legislation places most of the government’s in-house lawyers into an existing public sector union representing teachers, engineers and foresters among other professions, rather than allowing them to form a new union. The NDP government pushed ahead with the legislation as the provincial labour relations board was considering BCGLA’s certification and leading union voices— including the union slated to represented the lawyers — have opposed the bill.
It comes into effect on July 14 and BCGLA representing some 350 lawyers had earlier signalled that it would take this action.
BCGLA President Garth Morley said the challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is the “most likely” way to overturn Bill 5.
“We think there is (the) basic principle that workers should choose their union, not the employer, and I think that applies whether the employer is a private sector employer or the government,” he said.
Steven Barrett of Goldblatt Partners LLP, who has previously successfully represented unionized teachers in Ontario, will handle the case for the government lawyers.
Morley said that the government has signalled that it would cooperate to get the case heard quickly, but he also warned against a quick resolution.
“It is usually a matter of years, unfortunately, to have a case like this heard in court,” he said. “We are working to get it (in front of a court) as quickly as possible and the government has said they will cooperate with that.”
A long court case will also mean an expensive one. Morley acknowledged this aspect, but added that the lawyers have the means.
“We have been building up a war chest for this for many years,” he said.
Morley also made it clear that filing this court action is not just a ploy to get government’s attention, adding unless the government is willing to Bill 5, he sees no basis for a settlement at this point.
“We are in this to win it,” he said. “We are hoping that the court will agree with us. I have no reason to think that the government will see the light voluntarily, but obviously, if they do, then we’d be happy to talk to them.”
On the surface, the conflict appears limited to a small number of actors. But bigger issues are at stake, Morley said.
“Whatever you think about lawyers or the government, you should be concerned if the government writes one set of rules for everyone else and then a different rule for itself,” he said. “Whatever kind of worker you are, you should want the ability to choose whether you are going to have a union and if so, which one,” he added.
Those issues will be in the front of a court once the legal dispute starts in earnest.
“If we win, then that will vindicate those rights for everybody,” he said.
The Public Service Agency said in a statement that government lawyers play an important role in the public service.
“We support their right to belong to a union and collectively bargain,” it reads. “Bill 5 provides government lawyers the same access to bargaining rights as all other public service employees covered by the Public Service Labour Relations Act, while also preserving the necessary labour relations stability in the services people rely on.”
It added that bringing them into the Professional Employees Association offers what they are seeking: collective bargaining rights, the right to strike an improved dispute resolution process and job security.
“The BCGLA has the right to resume proceedings before the BC Labour Relations Board and to challenge the Public Service Labour Relations Act in the courts,” it reads. “Government is prepared to fully participate should they choose to do so.”