B.C. government lawyers protested outside legislature Monday (May 8) about a bill that would prevent them from forming their own union, and more walkouts are “not out of the question,” says a representative.
Monday’s protest was part of a walkout to protest the government’s decision to push forward with Bill 5, first tabled on Feb. 9, that would force the lawyers to join an existing public sector union representing teachers, engineers and foresters among other professions, rather than allowing them to form a new union.
Second reading was set to take place Monday.
The BC Government Lawyers Association applied in November to become a union, with more than 70 per cent in support, but B.C. argued lawyers can only join the Professional Employees Association if they want to unionize. The association represents about 350 lawyers that work with government in civil cases and providing legal advice on new laws.
Margo Foster, BCGLA secretary-general, said the association will challenge the legislation on constitutional grounds if passed.
“Bill 5 is contrary to our freedom of association under the Charter,” she said. Such a conflict could potentially take years, she added in calling for good-faith negotiations.
While both sides had been negotiating after the initial tabling of Bill 5, talks recently broke down. The legislation has drawn opposition from PEA, BC Federation of Labour, BC General Employees Union and the BC Crown Counsel Association representing Crown prosecutors.
The dispute between lawyers and the New Democratic government has also seen BC United — historically not supporters of union — accuse the NDP of being anti-union, despite a history rooted in the union movement.
Finance Minister Katrine Conroy said Thursday (May 4) that government highly values the lawyers and their services and that Bill 5 would allow them to join a union, which is what they wanted to do.
“It gives them their own component, so that they can bargain the issues that they want to bargain,” Conroy said.
Conroy also pointed to historic legislation first introduced by the NDP that limits public workers to three overarching bargaining units: BC Nurses’ Union, BC General Employees’ Union and PEA.
“It made sure that (government) was continuing to provide services to public, which is incredibly important,” she said. “If you have incredible number of unions … it become a difficult situation for the employer,” Conroy said.
Foster said Conroy “ought to know” the lawyers do not want to join PEA, noting they have “been very clear for over a decade” on it.
Foster said government lawyers serve as “guardians of the rule of law” in making sure government acts in accordance with the law.
“We have said for a long time that we need the support of a union to protect us in order to provide that advice fearlessly,” she said, adding government lawyers can be dismissed without cause.
“It’s our duty, our professional obligation to provide accurate legal advice regardless of whether somebody might like it or not.”