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Senators vote to approve Conservatives’ union bill despite error in legislation

The Senate chamber is seen Thursday April 24, 2014 in Ottawa.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Senators voted 45 to 21 to give final approval to a Conservative bill related to unions even though the legislation contains obvious errors.

Two Conservative Senators - Nancy Ruth and‎ John Wallace - voted against the bill.

The vote to send the bill into law was one of the last orders of business before the Senate rises for the holidays.

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Bill C-525 changes federal labour laws in a way that labour groups say will make it easier todecertify a union and harder to form a union. The bill replaces the current petition-style process for forming a union with a new system that would involve a secret ballot and a higher threshold of support.

Supporters of the bill, like the Canadian LabourWatch Association, argued the bill protects workers from intimidation should they choose not to support unionization in their workplace.‎

"Focusing on the ease or difficulty of unionization misses the point of the legislation," Conservative Senator Scott Tannas told the Senate Monday evening. "It's about having a fair process. Specifically, a secret ballot vote will allow employees to voice their true opinion without fear of intimidation from unions or from employers."

The bill received three consecutive days of hearings last week before the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee, which discovered mistakes with the bill. Because of amendments made by a committee in the House of Commons, the Conservative private members bill as currently drafted makes reference to sections of the Public Service Labour Relations Act that would no longer exist.

Senate Liberals and at least one Conservative Senator raised concerns with passing the bill as is, rather than fixing the error with an amendment and sending it back to the House of Commons. However the Conservative majority on the committee argued that an amendment would effectively kill the bill because of the length of time it would take for the House of Commons to deal with an amendment.

As a result, the committee reported the bill back to the Senate with no amendments but issued a note urging the government to bring in a new law that fixes the mistake before Bill C-525 comes into effect.

"Honestly, it's beyond embarrassing, colleagues," pleaded Liberal Senator Joan Fraser late Monday evening as Senators debated the bill. The opposition put forward amendments to fix the error but they were defeated. Two Conservative Senators, Diane Bellemare and John Wallace, abstained.

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The debate is prompting arguments inside the Senate about whether Senators are performing their most basic duties.

Catherine Ebbs, Chairperson of the Public Service Labour Relations and Employment Board, told Senators the error will mean the board will lose some existing powers to make regulations.

"The impact of this change is not trivial because our current specific regulations will be effectively removed from our toolkit to deal with applications for certification," she said. "However, I do not believe that it is fatal to the board's powers to seek information from a council of employee organizations in the context of certification. There are other methods that the board could use."

The House of Commons is now on recess until Jan. 27.

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