Swinging into Full Gear

January 1 st 1997

As reported in the Autumn issue of WRF Comment, the Work Research Foundation is commencing a major research and public education project around the issue of freedom of association and its effects in labour relations. We hope to show that the present system of labour relations unnecessarily compromises individual rights by forcing people to join a particular union as a condition of employment. We believe alternatives can be presented which provide a better balance between individual and collective rights in labour relations, without resorting to either the closed shop or the right-to-work extremes.

The decision to go ahead with this project was made by the WRF Board of Directors in October. Subsequently, Ms. Jennifer Wunsch was hired as a Media Relations Assistant to work on this project. Jennifer recently graduated with a Masters degree in Communications Studies from the University of Windsor and began working for the WRF in late November.

Surveying Canadians' attitudes

The implementation phase of this project is almost completed, and, with the arrival of the new year, we are ready to swing the project into full gear. During the implementation phase, we updated our literature to reflect the expanded work of the WRF, set up a home page on the Internet, and established contact with numerous business, legal, and academic persons who have a particular interest in our project. Five luncheons were held in Ontario and British Columbia at which a project overview was presented.

The first major research component of this project will be a survey of Canadians' attitudes toward compulsory unionism. The data will be collected through a major Canada-wide survey conducted by the Angus Reid Group. Sociology professor Reginald Bibby, from the University of Lethbridge, will analyze this data for us and prepare a paper based on the results. We expect this paper to be released in early spring.

We have also commissioned a study of the arrangements surrounding the $1.1 billion Island Highway Project commissioned by the British Columbia government. The effect of this has been that all work on this project will occur under the collective agreements of unions affiliated with the Building Trades Council (BTC), even though those unions presently only do a minority of highway construction work in the province.

Although workers not ordinarily affiliated with BTC unions are working on the project, they have no choice but work under BTC contracts. We have asked a consultant to calculate the forced contributions that such workers must make to various BTC funds, as well as the longer-term impacts on their pensions.

We have also met with other groups and individuals who have been involved in particular experiences that highlight the injustice of compulsory unionism as it is presently practised by many in the labour relations community. We will be doing further background work on these incidents, and will be working through the media to create broader public awareness of the issues involved.

Support needed

The WRF has been able to undertake this project with the help of a substantial grant received from the Donner Canadian Foundation. This funding is supplemented by the support that the WRF is able to generate from both business and labour. While we have received significant support for this project, we are still short of our objective.

We have also been busy building an infrastructure of contacts who will keep us informed about developments in various sectors which might become the focus of further study.

Our ability to raise sufficient funds will determine the number of studies that we can commission. Independent third-party studies are an indispensable backup to reports of incidents where workers and employers have been denied their freedom to work because of coercive union practices. If we are to be successful in creating a broader discussion of this matter—and get the media to pay attention—the anecdotal evidence we are gathering needs to be backed up by independent documentation and studies that can stand against careful public scrutiny.

The WRF is excited about this project and its potential. Not only does it address the fundamental issue of how workers can exercise freedom within our society, it also has implications regarding the future practice and structures of labour relations. The present rapidly-changing economic environment is an opportune time to put forward an alternative model for labour relations.

We will keep Comment readers informed on our progress through this column. Your responses, input, and sharing of examples which may be of interest to us are appreciated.

 

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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