More Legal Twists to Migrant Workers’ Unionizing Attempt

Posted by admin on Jul 3rd, 2009

By Tom Sandborn, 3 Jul 2009,

The owners of Greenway Farms in Surrey have failed in their appeal to decertify the union their migrant workers voted to join last year. But the union side isn’t celebrating yet. What looked like a breakthrough success at organizing foreign guest workers in British Columbia remains in limbo while the B.C. Labour Relations Board (LRB) sorts through more intrigue around the union drive at Greenway. An extra wrinkle to the dispute is the fact that LRB vice-chair Philip Topalian, likely the one to rule on the next stage of the case, has been found by the Supreme Court of B.C. to have shown “actual bias” in another case involving claims of unfair labour practices towards foreign workers.

Sealed vote by new workforce

Greenway Farms made B.C. history last year when its mostly Mexican workforce (who came to Canada under a federal guest worker program) chose the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) to represent them as their bargaining agent.

Greenway Farms appealed to the LRB to cancel the union’s certification. Their appeal was rejected on June 29 in a ruling by LRB vice-chair Ken Saunders. Saunders rejected the argument from Greenway’s lawyers that the provincial labour body had no jurisdiction over employees under the federal government’s controversial Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Program.
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But that wasn’t the only hurdle the union needs to clear.

Yesterday, July 2, the question of whether to decertify the union was put to the current workers at Greenway, who were allowed in a separate decision by the LRB to cast their votes on the matter.

Now, the results of that vote are sealed while the LRB considers an unfair labour practices complaint filed by the union.

Union’s unfair practices complaints

The union’s complaint alleges that the drive to decertify was led by Gurinder Narwal, a farm owner and a long-time friend of the family that owns Greenway Farms.

The complaint alleges that Narwal, who has not been a Greenway employee during the period of the union’s certification there, intimidated Greenway workers and led the campaign to “get rid of the union,” all of which, claims the union, contravenes LRB rules about fair labour practices.

When approached by the Tyee at the LRB hearings, Narwal refused comment, saying he was “acting for the employees.”

Bill Singh Sandhu, the administrator at Greenway, also refused an interview with the Tyee.

Union organizers told the Tyee last month that they suspected Greenway owners “shuffled” their workforce this year, replacing most of the Mexican workers who supported joining UFCW in the 2008 season with a new and mostly local crew of Indo-Canadian workers.

Supreme Court finds bias at LRB

Philip Topalian is the LRB vice-chair who ruled that Greenway’s current workforce could vote on whether or not to decertify the union. He will likely be weighing the Union’s claim that the vote is invalid because of unfair labour practices.

B.C Supreme Court Justice Paul Walker criticized Topalian last May in a judicial review of disputes before the LRB that stemmed from the use of foreign workers on the Canada Line project.

SELI, the main employer involved in the Canada Line tunnel below Vancouver’s False Creek, hired foreign workers to do the tunneling, but became embroiled in a pay dispute with the foreign crew and the Construction and Specialized Worker Union Local 1611 representing them.

The matter went to the LRB, where Topalian decided in favour of SELI.

But in reviewing the case, Justice Walker concluded that Topalian had made up his mind well before all the evidence was presented, and that his “mind was closed to the union’s complaint that unfair labour practices had, in fact, occurred.”

Walker quashed Topalian’s rulings, stating, “It is vital for labour relations in this province that the Board’s processes be viewed as impartial and procedurally fair.”

Union wants inquiry

In the wake of that Supreme Court ruling, Local 1611 business manager Mark Olsen called on the provincial government to dismiss Topalian as vice-chair and conduct an independent inquiry into the LRB because “neither our union nor likely any other union can have confidence [Topalian] will be fair and unbiased in future cases.”

LRB media spokesman Pat Driscoll told the Tyee he could not confirm or deny whether Topalian would continue to preside over the unfair labour practices complaint in the Greenway Farms case.

Driscoll refused to comment on the Supreme Court of BC criticism of Topalian or the call from Local 1611 for Topalian’s removal from the board.

Driscoll suggested that the Tyee speak with LRB chair Brent Mullin about the matter.

Mullin sat on the reconsideration panel that confirmed Topalian’s decisions on the SELI-related unfair labour practices complaint. Justice Walker said in his ruling that when the LRB reconsidered the SELI case, neither Topalian, Mullin nor anyone else involved in that panel should be part of the reconsideration.

The Tyee called Mullin’s office asking for comment.

David Garner, a staff lawyer with the LRB, responded to the call and said Justice Walker’s judicial review ruling was being appealed by the LRB and, consequently, neither the board nor Mullin would have any comment on the matter.

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