Matthew Byrne shows there is no good reason for this. Bryne details exactly why there is not in Modernizing the Union Certification Process: The Benefits of Electronically Signed Union Membership Cards, the brand new research paper he wrote for the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights and the Canadian Labour Institute.
Refusing to allow unions to use up-to-the-minute digital technology is just one more example of how difficult it is to join a union in Canada—and is meant to be.
Regressive labour laws and various technical requirements have always made it difficult for workers to join a union—even when they overwhelmingly want to, and despite the fact it is their unquestioned right embedded in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Ya gotta sign the card to get ‘certified’
To be legal, unions have to be certified (except in the rare cases when an employer voluntarily recognizes one). Certification is awarded by Labour Relations Boards (LRBs) in our provinces, territories and the federal public sector.
There are two ways in which certification can be achieved in Canada, depending upon jurisdiction:
1. By obtaining a majority of cards signed by employees who want to join a union (“card-check”); and,
2. After obtaining a minimum of signed cards, by winning a vote held under the auspices of a LRB to determine whether a majority of those who vote support unionization.
In each case, however, the process begins with the signing of cards. LRBs consider these cards to be evidence that the signatories want a union. But this initial organizing task is made more difficult by the refusal of most LRBs to accept electronic signatures. Even now, they require a physical card with a written signature and date.
Matthew Byrne argues the boards just aren’t keeping up with the times.
The electronic union card
The difficulty to overcome with electronic signing is to establish two things at once: the identity of the signatory, and the date of signature. Cards must be dated when they are signed, and that date must fall within the allowable period for a unionization campaign.
In 2016, Local 1518 of the United Food and Commercial Workers in BC found a solution: a piece of software called Adobe E-Sign. The software allows a person to sign an electronic membership card on their telephone or tablet and forward it to the union organizer: and it keeps a detailed record that verifies identity and date.
In a breakthrough, the BCLRB ruled that these electronic cards, subject to some restrictions, would be admissible. But to date, no other Canadian jurisdiction has followed suit.
In this respect, Canada lags behind the US. The National Labour Relations Board moved to accept electronic signatures in 2015. With respect to their authenticity, electronic card software is now so advanced that, as proof of the signer’s intent, only a check in a box may be required!
The advantages of electronic cards
Speed. The longer the time between a unionization campaign becoming known and an eventual certification election, the more time employers have to interfere—
and 80% of them do. This, not surprisingly, has a measurably negative effect on unionization success (see CFLR’s recent paper entitled Key Policy Reforms for Improving Bargaining Unit Certifications). Electronic card signing lessens the chance of early employer detection and resistance.
Access to the workforce. A growing number of workers are young, part-time, and/or precariously employed. While there is solid support for unionizing in their ranks, many of these workers are not easily accessible to union organizers. They might work from home, for instance, or in numerous job locations (for example, cleaners and home-care workers). Social media have become a key organizing avenue in such cases: electronic cards would allow these workers to indicate their support from their own computers.
Costs. During an organizing campaign, meetings, travel and written communications take up significant union resources. Conducting the entire organizing campaign by computer, up to and including card-signing, could reduce those costs, perhaps substantially.
How to get the boards to change
Byrne suggests two possible approaches to having electronic cards accepted by LRBs.
The first is to lobby governments for legislative amendments that would allow them to be treated just like written cards. The downside of that approach is that governments might well be unwilling to bind LRBs, which are established as independent tribunals, especially with respect to their evaluation of evidence.
The second is to build directly upon the BC ruling. That ruling was not an unqualified victory by any means—signatures still must be entered on touch screens, which are far from universally available. Other means of verified card submission, such as those approved by the US NLRB, remain barred. But it’s a foot in the door.
So, in another jurisdiction, a union might furnish electronic cards to the LRB and use the BC decision as a precedent. That would involve the careful selection of a small bargaining unit with a relatively friendly employer, as a test case. If the LRB ruled against certification, traditional cards could be signed and submitted after the waiting period.
But a less all-or-nothing approach suggests itself—where support for unionization is strong, submit enough written cards to meet the requirements, with a few electronic ones as well. In that way, the workers win whatever the LRB decides about e-signatures. And a positive ruling would allow unions to push the envelope further, submitting, in a future organizing drive, a few cards where signatures are typed, or a box is ticked, with authentication secured through encryption or other means.
The aim of card-signing during a union organizing campaign is simply to provide evidence of support for joining a union. Given advances in computer software technology, that basic requirement can easily be met electronically. There is no sound reason for not putting this into effect.
It’s time that labour relations boards be given the opportunity to catch up. But pro-active measures by unions will be needed in this key area, as we take on the new organizing challenges that lie before us.
This article was originally published by The Canadian Labour Institute.
Reprinted with permission for CALM Members use.