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Everyone deserves a voice at work

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In Ontario, the main law concerning the bargaining rights of employees is called the Labour Relations Act. Officially, it is called the Labour Relations Act, 1995.

For some readers, 1995 may not seem like a long time ago. But I was seven years old in 1995 and spent my days learning how to read cursive writing and how to cross the street safely.

Today I represent clients in court as a lawyer with Legal Aid Ontario. I am one of the hundreds of lawyers across the province who provide family, criminal, and immigration law services to Ontarians who are in crisis and cannot afford to pay for a lawyer. We represent everyone, from teens trying to cope with raising their own children to seniors with dementia facing criminal charges.  I chose to work for Legal Aid Ontario because I believe that everyone should have a voice, regardless of how much money they have.

The profession that I work in has changed just as much over the last 21 years. The days of firms with four or five partners, each with equal footing, making collaborative decisions about the way their firm should be managed is no longer the reality for many lawyers in Ontario. Studies by the Law Society of Upper Canada show that new lawyers look more like me: racialized, female, and at the lower levels of large organizations and firms. Many lawyers like myself find ourselves stuck in the power imbalance of a traditional employer-employee relationship.

In my job, it's not as if I can simply knock on the door of the CEO of Legal Aid Ontario and call a staff meeting if I have a problem with Legal Aid's most recent policy. There is no seat for me at the boardroom table.

Yet, according to the Labour Relations Act, as a lawyer, I am not an employee by definition and cannot be represented by an organization of my own choosing. In other words, I don't have the right to join a union that would help me address my concerns with my employer.

What does this mean for lawyers like me? Without a union, many of us lack a mechanism to influence our working conditions or deal with workplace issues, leaving us voiceless and vulnerable on the job. I shudder to think of where I would be if I was facing workplace harassment or mistreatment by a supervisor. Would I face reprisal for making a complaint? Who would be on my side?

As a lawyer on the front lines working with vulnerable, low-income clients, I know which policies are working and which aren't. But what can I do if I know that a policy isn't compatible with my clients' needs? Efforts by staff to speak to higher-ups about concerns about Legal Aid policies or programs are rarely fruitful.

The precariousness of our jobs causes constant stress for many of us. A number of my colleagues are working on short-term contracts, hoping that they'll be renewed again after another few months.

My own career at Legal Aid Ontario has been unpredictable and difficult to navigate. When I was first hired with Legal Aid, I was not even told where in the province I would be working. I interviewed for my current position three times within my first year and a half of becoming a lawyer. Before each interview I felt a pang of uncertainty. Would I be expected uproot my life and move across the province? Would I be expected to practice in a new area of the law? Would there be anyone to train me if I was sent to a remote location? I always had more questions than answers.

I am part of a group of Legal Aid lawyers who have been fighting to unionize for more than three years. For 38 months of that time, Legal Aid and the Government of Ontario have refused to meet with us to discuss our workplace concerns. Because we are excluded from unionizing under the current legislation or even acting collectively, we do not have the power we would have as union members. Our employer has shown no willingness to take our voices seriously.

We do have hope however, and we have two asks of Premier Wynne to correct past wrongs.

First, we ask the Premier to use her influence to have Legal Aid Ontario immediately enter into a voluntary recognition agreement with our chosen union. Second, the Government of Ontario has recognized that the current Labour Relations Act is outdated and has launched a consultation called the Changing Workplace Review. Legal Aid lawyers are asking for one simple change: include us in the Labour Relations Act and give us access to the representation that we need.

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Image: Flickr/me_vanou

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