Democracy—Union Style
Democracy—Union Style

Democracy—Union Style

September 1 st 1993

There is a striking contradiction between workers' freedom of association in theory and in practice. In theory, that freedom exists and is even mentioned in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as it was in the earlier Canadian Bill of Rights. In practice, however, labour unions can, and do, demand that union membership is in fact a permit to work. No permit, no work!

This destruction of freedom has a long and complex history, but that does not make it any more justified. Not even when it is sanctioned by the highest courts in the land, as was done when Merv Lavigne claimed his right to refrain from paying union dues because he was strongly opposed, on moral grounds, to certain union policies, including their pro-abortion stand. Lavigne, as others had experienced before him, discovered that his freedom existed on paper only. The honourable judges ruled that what they perceived to be the wellbeing of unionized workers had precedence over the constitutional rights of individuals such as Lavigne. This compulsion gives unions absolute control and enables them to make it impossible for certain workers to find employment.

Violating free speech

The August 1993 issue of Union Democracy Review (an American publication dedicated to fighting for workers' freedom of association) described a bizarre case of the American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) arguing for its right to blacklist its own members. Three members of Plumbers Local 76 in Hartford, Connecticut, were critics of their leadership and had the temerity to oppose the local president in an election. When unemployed, they applied for a job at the Millstone nuclear power plant.

The trouble was that the more than 3,000 plumbers employed at this plant came under the jurisdiction of Local 305, which happened to be headed by the brother of the Local 76 president. The three, who had to go through the union hiring hall, were refused membership in the union and thus were unable to work. They sued in a federal district court, which awarded them generous damages. But that was not the end of the story.

The AFL-CIO Building Trades Department stepped in with an action in the Court of Appeals in defence of Local 305's right to blacklist the three dissidents. The AFL-CIO legal hired hands came up with a fancy argument that since the three workers belonged to Local 76, they could not accuse Local 305 of violating the rights of free speech (protected in the relevant legislation) of its own members because the three complainants were not members of this local.

The Court of Appeals accepted this interpretation of the law, and now the three men are appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. The outcome of this case may well hinge on a narrow definition of the term "union member." But the author of the article in Union Democracy Review asked: "But what about the moral grounds? What about the simple issue of fair play? How is the labor movement served by strengthening the power of union officials to blacklist their critics?"

How indeed? And how is it possible that this same abuse is carried on in our country (as reported in previous issues of this newsletter) with so few voices being raised against it? Remember that the practice of the AFL-CIO building trade unions are the same on both sides of the border.

Where are the human rights zealots when we need them?

Forced union dues

Joseph Degrandmont is a federal civil servant who refused to go along with the 1991 strike of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), led by Daryl Bean. The union leaders denounced Degrandmont and all other nonstrikers as traitors to the cause of labour. Some of them have decided to fight back and reclaim their basic right not to be coerced and penalized by the union that is supposed to look after their interest.

Reportedly, several dozen government employees have requested the Treasury Board (their employer) to redirect their union dues to a charity. The dissenters have formed a Humanistic League to promote morality, ethics, and free will. The main complaint of the objectors, as reported by Diane Francis in The Financial Post (June 24, 1993), is that the union is undemocratic and vindictive toward those who fail to tow the union line by refusing to join what they considered an unjustified strike.

The anti-democratic behaviour of unions such as the AFL-CIO and PSAC is fundamentally in conflict with what a free society is all about. Their coercive actions mock the ideas of freedom of speech and association, central to union democracy. No wonder some people have decided to fight back. They deserve to win.

Harry Antonides
Harry Antonides

Harry Antonides came to Canada in 1948, initially working as a farm hand and railway labourer. After over a decade working in a chemical plant in Sarnia, Ontario, Harry joined the newly forming Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) in 1962 as a field representative. By 1970 Harry became director of research and education. In 1974, he was a founding member of the Work Research Foundation (now Cardus) and publisher of their sole publication, Comment magazine. A prolific writer and dynamic speaker, Harry delivered lectures all over North America and published numerous articles, reviews, and essays. He is author of several books on Christianity, labour, and economics, including Multinationals and the Peacable Kingdom (1978) and Stones for Bread: The Social Gospel and its Contemporary Legacy (1985). Harry is retired and lives with his wife Janet in Willowdale, Ontario.


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