Advancing Democratic Trade Unionism
Advancing Democratic Trade Unionism

Advancing Democratic Trade Unionism

June 1 st 1999

Text of a speech by Ray Pennings, given at the Canadian Industrial Relations Association Conference held June 9, 1999 at the University of Sherbrooke.

Is diversity best developed within or among unions? The question is really one about the tension inherent in our system of labour relations. How does one balance the need for union security with principles of union democracy? Where, on the continuum between individual rights and collective rights, ought our policies direct us?

My argument is that promoting the principle and practice of trade union plurality will benefit Canadian unions and workers. This position will not surprise anyone familiar with the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) and its unique position within the Canadian labour relations community. Since its inception in 1952, CLAC has emphasized the principles of freedom of association, the right of workers to belong (or not) to the trade union of their choice, and the right for differently motivated trade unions to compete for workers' allegiance.

Preliminary comments

Before developing reasons in defence of my argument, allow me to make three preliminary comments which provide a helpful context for our discussion.

First, collective bargaining has desirable social and economic consequences and, as such, is preferable to individual bargaining. I fully recognize that many discuss the issue of individual and collective rights because, for whatever reason, they think collective bargaining is not a desirable option. It goes beyond the confines of this paper to address those concerns; however, I think it is important to indicate that what I am arguing for is a balance between individual and collective rights within the context of collective bargaining, which respects the need for certain union security provisions. As such, I am basing my observations on the premise contained in most Canadian labour law, that unions function, in part, as private government.

In other words, the question is not whether diversity is best achieved within or outside of unions but whether it is best achieved within or among unions. If asked to answer the first question, my answer is a definite pro-union answer. But it is the second question we are concerned with here.

Second, individuals and organizations act in accordance with, or out of, their worldview. This worldview, or weltanschauung as it is sometimes referred to, may or may not be consciously articulated, but it is there. Their belief or value system determines how they act. Organizations also have such worldviews. Unions ensconced in a left-of-centre, social democratic worldview can be expected to act a certain way. Unions with a pragmatic business approach to collective bargaining will likely act differently. A union with a distinctly Christian worldview can be expected to act differently. An organization's statement of principles or mission statement may or may not accurately reflect the worldview that drives its programs and activities.

I make this point because a discussion about dealing with diversity must acknowledge the diversity of worldviews that exist within the Canadian workforce. Any system of industrial relations that makes pretensions of being democratic must come to grips with how this diversity of worldviews can be reconciled. Solutions to workplace problems are not only based on neutral facts but are undergirded by fundamental beliefs about what work, authority, responsibility, and just human relations are all about. Our industrial relations system must deal with issues on which there are deeply held differences.

A third preliminary contextual comment, which flows out of the previous two. Whether it is a matter of fact or merely of perception, it cannot be denied that the general population views the Canadian labour movement as somewhat monolithic in its perspective, and that this at least in part explains the reason so many workers have chosen not to join a trade union. As an April 1999 Gallup poll illustrates, almost 60 per cent of Canadians approve of unions. Ask them about specific tangible benefits that might cause them to join a union, and almost 80 per cent agree. When the questions move to broader social issues in which the union movement's ideological bent is more transparent, the approval rating falls to the 20 per cent range.

This is obviously a point that warrants much more discussion and is more nuanced than this quick review allows for, but few would argue with the premise that the Canadian labour movement, whatever its diversity, ought to be broad enough to accommodate the full range of worldviews present in the workforce. If we believe that the social and economic benefits of collective bargaining make it a worthwhile public objective for us to pursue (admittedly, a biased premise in itself, but those who disagree with unions in principle are unlikely to join anyway; keep in mind only three per cent told the Gallup poll that nothing could make them join a union), then it follows that if the union movement as a whole is able to encompass a broader spectrum of policies based on different worldviews, then there will be fewer workers who are systemically excluded from choosing to be represented by a union.

Benefitting unions and workers

Against this background, I would like to develop some arguments for the thesis that promoting the principle and practice of trade union plurality will benefit Canadian unions and workers.

The fundamental argument that can be appealed to is the principle of democracy. One can appeal to ILO Convention 87, the freedom to choose clause, which guarantees the right of union choice under every labour relations jurisdiction in the country. What this principle actually means, of course, is subject to various interpretations.

Some have held that workplace democracy is achieved by a trade union that operates as an "official opposition" to management. Such a view suggests that any attempt by the union to work collaboratively with management by definition undermines a union's ability to be independent and truly represent the interest of workers.

Others, like James Dorsey, have framed questions of worker democracy in the context of the relationship between a trade union and its members. Essentially, Dorsey argues that because the functioning of collective bargaining requires the principle of majoritarian rule, protecting an individual's right to participate is a necessary exchange for the legitimacy of that rule. In particular, Dorsey states that legislative reforms are needed to ensure workers can access union membership, restraining the power of unions to discipline against individual action perceived to be against the collective interest, and enhance the opportunity for workers to participate in union affairs. "The approach should be one which recognizes that while unions may have a homogeneity of general purposes and objectives, they operate through heterogeneous structures in varied social, industrial, and economic milieus."

A third way of looking at union democracy has been to characterize it in terms of outcomes. Consider, for example, the line of reasoning adopted in Carla Lipsig-Mumme's paper "Unions Struggle with New Work Order." Lipsig describes the effects of globalization on union density, and, in particular, the challenges of organizing in a labour market where the majority are "in precarious and fragmentary employment, enjoying neither security of tenure, full-time employment nor favourable career prospects. Women, racial minorities, the young and elderly will be more prominent in this workforce than they are today." The solution she recommends is greater cooperation between unions and a de-escalation in inter-union rivalry. The real benefit would come, she claims, from the "creation of fifteen or twenty 'super-unions', each given moral authority to represent workers in a particular, broadly defined jurisdiction."

This line of reasoning is similar to that adopted by the Supreme Court in its ruling on the Lavigne case. In response to Lavigne's objection that his union dues were being used to fund the New Democratic Party, the court said: "There is evidence to support the view that the cause of unionism and of working people generally has been advanced by the NDP. . . . It is inconceivable that support of the NDP could be considered irrelevant to the union's obligation to represent those who pay dues to it." The justification for a union's "obligation" to support one political party, in the words of the court, or for granting a "moral authority" to a union monopoly in a particular sector, in Lipsig-Mumme's term, is a view of democracy that is defined by particular policies or outcomes.

Union pluralism or monopoly

Essentially, it seems there are two issues that separate the arguments of those in favour of a pluralistic labour relations environment and those who accept or promote effective labour monopolies in given sectors (whether they advocate that as an ideal or simply as a de facto consequence of their position). Those issues are:

  1. How broadly do we define the collective interests? If the issue is one of balance between collective and individual rights, it makes a considerable difference if we view the collective as the bargaining unit or as all members of the working class. How do we define the constituency of the collective whose interests we are balancing?

  2. What meaningful choices or means of expression are given to minority interests, those who do not agree with the decisions made by the collective group, for whatever reason. Any system that relies on the majoritarian principle worthy of being called democratic must be respectful and provide a meaningful avenue for the expression of minority positions.

The 1991 Report of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing outlined six objectives which formed the framework for their reform proposals, suggesting that it was important that such reforms needed to "clarify the fundamental objectives of electoral democracy" and not simply the result of a "technical exercise." Allow me to apply these principles to the industrial relations environment and raise some questions and examples which illustrate the need for fundamental rethinking of some accepted tenets of our labour relations system.

The first principle articulated is Securing the Democratic Rights of Voters. For those who support unions, the positive expression of that right is essential, and as anyone who has ever organized workers in the face of employer opposition will attest, these rights cannot be taken for granted. But there is also another side to this principle that ought to be considered. Let me illustrate with the example of Halifax postal worker Philip Safire.

As a result of a 1996 arbitration award on a CUPW grievance, Safire was ordered to join the union within one month, under the contract's closed shop provision, or lose his job. According to reports in a CUPW newsletter, he did not join because "he found the union's policies and constitution offensive." Safire told Arbitrator Innis Christie that he "objected to having to swear an oath of allegiance to an organization he disagrees with" on grounds of "principle and philosophy." He was willing to pay dues and join the union for collective bargaining purposes only. According to CUPW Regional Grievance Officer Jeff Woods, this was inadequate. "A union is about a lot more than paying dues for the service of representation. . . . When individual members get involved to support the union, we gain strength and we gain the power to truly represent the membership."

Even accepting that certain individual rights must be sacrificed in exchange for collective bargaining to work effectively, can it really be argued that it is necessary to force workers to swear oaths of allegiance that violate their conscience? Philip Safire is not the only example of this needless violation of an individual's conscience in the name of trade union security. It is cases like these that undermine the credibility of the union movement as democratic organizations, irrespective of any other worthwhile objectives they are achieving.

The second objective the Royal Commission suggests is Enhancing Access to Elected Office. Applied to an industrial relations setting, it would seem that the promotion of collective bargaining ought to be among the purposes of labour relations codes. Provisions such as those passed by the Ontario government in Bill 31, which takes away the power of the Ontario Labour Relations Board to deal effectively with employer misconduct in an organizing campaign through outright certification, is one example of how workers are denied their right to freely join the union of their choice. The story of CLAC's attempt to organize the workers of JDS Fitel in Ottawa is a case in point.

Representative voice?

The third principle identified by the Royal Commission is Promoting Equality and Efficacy of Vote. The North American Wagnerian model of labour relations is premised on each workplace having its own community of interest. Unlike the European system, where workers can choose between competing unions, the North American system relies on the exclusivity principle. Both systems have features that commend themselves, but the strength of the North American system is the necessary focus unions must place on servicing their members.

The challenge our system faces in its democratic credibility is when union membership attracted in the context of local bargaining unit issues (most persons join a union in the context of their local situation) is used to endorse a broad social/political agenda. While it is true that these issues are determined through the internal political structures of unions, it is undeniable that this system lacks credibility in ensuring that unions are speaking with a voice that is truly representative of their membership. If this were true, one would expect that the politics of Canada would look very different from what it actually does. If the principle of exclusivity is necessary to achieve the worthwhile objectives of collective bargaining and if certain individual rights need to be exchanged in order for that system to work, then it follows that the suppression of individual rights be minimized in order to allow the system to work as democratically as possible. A rethinking of some of the prevalent practices of our system is in order.

Free to choose

The fourth objective is Strengthening Political Parties as Primary Political Organizations. Several of the suggestions James Dorsey makes in this regard are deserving of further consideration. A union must be able to protect itself from within by expecting loyalty from its members. Nevertheless, "the individual's right to try to change or rid himself of union representation must be recognized as having greater social value than the loyalty that a union may demand from its members." Dual union membership ought not to be grounds for union discipline. "Unions do not, and indeed cannot, guarantee economic prosperity as a return on union membership. Therefore, they should not be able to punish because an individual must or chooses to belong to more than one union, whether they be common affiliates of one house of labour or rival unions espousing differing philosophies."

This is not merely the stuff of theorizing and academic discourse. Local 955 of the Operating Engineers amended their constitution last year so that "effective November 1, 1998, the Local Union shall not allow a Contractor to name hire from the Local Union's out-of-work list any member who holds membership in, or provides services to a competitive Union and the member will not be eligible for name hire for a period of six months." It is commonly known that some unions have levelled thousands of dollars in fines against members who obtained work under the contract of another union while the first union had no work available for them.

The fifth principle established by the Royal Commission is Promoting Fairness in Electoral Process. As someone who advocates for union plurality and competition, believing that all unions will improve the quality of the representation they offer their members if the electoral process acts as a meaningful accountability mechanism, the existence of campaigns can be a healthy process. It forces a divided workforce to engage itself in a collective discussion as to what their priorities are and where they want to go. That does not mean a campaign does not leave its painful marks.

I have been either directly involved or am aware of the circumstances of 10 votes involving CLAC and a competing union since last August. Six were applications by other unions to displace CLAC; four were applications by CLAC to displace other unions. (My perspective is undoubtedly skewed by the fact that CLAC won nine of the 10 votes.) Yet, the process of the campaign and the conclusion brought by the ballot box is a very healthy way to resolve internal division, and, even after bitterly but fairly fought campaigns, those on the losing side tend to accept the majority decision and work constructively for the interests of the group.

One of these recent votes was the subject of a B.C. Labour Relations Board decision and illustrates how our current rules regarding displacement application campaigns are deficient. The hearing revolved around allegations of misconduct by the employer, CLAC, and IBEW as it affected a campaign in August 1998 for the support of 24 employees of Chambers Electric. The vote was held and the ballot box sealed subject to the Board's determination. The Board found there were irregularities in the IBEW hiring hall dispatch which affected the list of those eligible to vote and that threats were made by the IBEW regarding the availability of certain funds. Had the employer threatened the same consequences that this union threatened (and had the ability to carry out), no one would dispute it would be a clear case of employer interference in a worker's right to choose democratically. Why is it then that we tolerate such anti-democratic conduct on the part of unions in campaigns?

The final principle the Royal Commission identified as an objective of electoral reform is that it should Enhance Public Confidence in the Integrity of the Electoral Process. There is plenty of qualitative and quantitative evidence available to document that the public does not have the confidence in the labour movement that those of us who believe in the benefits of collective bargaining would like to see. I will suggest that to no small degree, the examples I have cited are a contributing factor to this problem.

Understanding worker democracy

So what is the solution? Rather than trying to regulate a monopoly, we ought to move towards an industrial relations policy and practice that makes forming and joining a union easier, that ensures fair campaigns in which unions can compete for worker support and which discourages the sorts of arrangements that result in virtual monopoly representation for unions in a particular sector. We regulate predatory pricing and collusive activities in the corporate sector where oligopolies exist; it would be helpful to consider dealing with similar anti-competitive practices as they exist on the labour front.

The fact that there is only one umbrella organization representing labour in English Canada ought to be a cause for concern to those who want to see a vibrant and diverse labour movement. The fact that more than 30 per cent of unionized workers belong to unions that fall outside of that umbrella is itself evidence that a monolithic structure cannot capture the interests of even all unionized workers, let alone the majority of the workforce who, for whatever reason, have chosen not to join a union.

For too long we have preferred to avoid this debate, but I would suggest that a basic rethinking of what is understood by worker democracy is a healthy and necessary prerequisite to a revitalized labour movement. In this, I agree with Buzz Hargrove. In his recent autobiography, he wrote:

Even within labour's major umbrella organization—the Canadian Labour Congress—there's a reluctance to debate the most archaic practices. In an age of extreme worker dissatisfaction—with unions as well as employers—the CLC does not allow members of one union to leave and join another. A union member is like an indentured servant. It makes no sense in an age when we talk about worker democracy.

The CAW is probably the only union that allows its members to decide if they want to stay with us or move to another union. We learned from experience that by giving members the option of choosing which union they're most comfortable with, we become stronger and more effective. Having the right to change unions allows our members to pressure the leaders to work more closely with them and to ensure that they're satisfied with our performance on their behalf.

The prevailing mood among affiliates in the CLC is just the opposite. Most unions want to make it more difficult for members to switch unions, not less, in the interest of maintaining a suitable number of dues-paying members. Among the majority of union leaders, the issue is not even considered worthy of debate. Yet it lies at the very heart of what the labour movement is all about. If we're going to be relevant to our members and strong enough to ensure that employers and governments can't further dismantle the legislated rights we fought for decades to achieve, the labour movement has to be more open. It has to be the modern progressive force it once was, not the static, conservative group it's become.
Ray Pennings
Ray Pennings

Ray Pennings co-founded Cardus in 2000 and currently serves as Executive Vice President, working out of the Ottawa office. Ray has a vast amount of experience in Canadian industrial relations and has been involved in public policy discussions and as a political activist at all levels of government. Ray is a respected voice in Canadian politics, contributing as a commentator, pundit and critic in many of Canada’s leading news outlets and as an advisor and strategist on political campaign teams.


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