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Les Leyne: Premier David Eby takes on lawyers — again

The B.C. NDP government has introduced a one-page bill that bestows the right to join a union on the 350 lawyers who work for government. There’s a catch.
B.C. Premier David Eby. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Premier David Eby is well into his re-interpretation of that cliché about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer.

He’s turning his friends into enemies. That’s bringing a lot of people in close, and they’re getting closer. The latest group to move to that inner circle is the government’s lawyers. They were fuming this week and could reach the boiling point next week as the NDP government executes an Orwellian move on them.

For the upcoming last week of the legislative session, it brought up a one-page bill that bestows the right to join a union on the 350 lawyers who work for government.

They’ve been working toward that for years, so the NDP is portraying it as a union-friendly government welcoming the brothers and sisters on the coalface of government law into the house of labour.

But as usual, there’s a catch. It herds them into a union the government prefers, the Professional Employees Association, rather than allowing them to form their own.

The NDP’s defence is that public sector labour law prohibits new bargaining units springing up spontaneously so as not to further complicate labour relations.

But the February move was made when the lawyers were well into the Labour Relations Board process of organizing their own bargaining entity.

In one of several ironies about this caper, they went the Labour Relations Board using a recent NDP law aimed at smoothing that process for workers trying to unionize.

The bill was sidelined while the two sides negotiated from February on. But there was no deal, so it was reactivated this week, and the dispute is now a full-fledged fight.

(Another irony: When the lawyers starting talking about job action this week, the government warned them they can’t do that, because they’re not in union.)

What is it with Eby and lawyers?

He’s a career lawyer, but he broke ranks with significant branch of the B.C. bar when he made ICBC changes that reduce motor vehicle lawsuits and choked off a significant chunk of their revenue.

He ran the B.C. Civil Liberties Association earlier, but it objected to his musings while attorney general about detention for youths in acute overdose crises.

Separate from lawyers but in the same vein, last month he blocked his own constituents’ attempt to fight a rezoning by blocking them from contesting it in court.

The arguments in those instances were that they were for the greater good. But the rationale for this latest move is a lot thinner. Now he has the government lawyers, the national association of Crown counsels and the Canadian Bar Association coming down on him from the legal side.

On the union side, the government employees union and the B.C. Federation of Labour are objecting.

Even the Professional Employees Association, the government’s designated adoptee, doesn’t want any part of this.

One of the basics of organized labour is that the workers pick their union, not the employer.

The NDP started an end-run around that in their first term, when some major public works contracts were rejigged as ­community benefits agreements, where people had to join one of 19 NDP-friendly unions to work on them.

The current fight with the lawyers continues the theme, but with a lot more at stake.

Government lawyers can throw any number of wrenches into the works if they start acting out during this grievance.

The NDP may be feeling a little shame-faced about the situation, based on Thursday’s performance. During four hours of debate, eight Opposition members railed on against the bill. Only two government MLAs rose to defend it.

Also, the bill was introduced by Finance Minister Katrine Conroy. Labour Minister Harry Bains could have been expected to handle it. But he’s a lifelong union advocate. He may not want to have anything to do with it.

Just So You Know: There was a lot of eerie role reversal going on this week. The NDP has union rights in its DNA, but now they’re being of accused of being a scheming employer, trampling workers’ rights.

BC United has a dark, sorry record in dealing with unions when they were the BC Liberal government. But now they are championing the cause.

After watching the argument for a while, Green MLA Adam Olsen remarked: “It’s like the Twilight Zone in here.”

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