They Ordered a Union like a Pizza

June 1 st 2000

The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) threatens to enforce its "no-raid policy" because the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union has signed up members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Buzz Hargrove, CAW's president, says he's prepared to depart the CLC to defend Canadian workers' democratic rights to join any union they choose.

I smell bad fish, but we won't get into that here. What is important, though, is that Buzz Hargrove has shone a light on longstanding union collusion that is responsible for keeping thousands of Canadians trapped in indifferent, abusive and sometimes corrupt labour unions.

I speak from experience. Before my conscience caught up with me, I was an international union official who relied on the no-raid pacts and CLC policies to keep thousands of unsuspecting dues-payers in unions, which are nearly impossible to leave.

Canadian laws give workers the right to join a union. It is against those laws to use coercion or intimidation to prevent the exercising of that right. Those laws also specify a time during the term of a collective agreement when union members may vote to switch unions. This is commonly called the "raiding period." The CLC constitution and its coercive sanctions fly in the face of those laws and make them meaningless or inoperable. Workers who wish to change unions are turned away at the other union's door.

In one assignment I worked on, a large Canadian grocery chain "custom ordered" a local union from one of North America's largest international unions. Yes, they ordered it just like you would order a pizza—extra "flexibility," and hold the high wages. The deal was that in return for five to six thousand yet-to-be-hired employees, the union would create a "friendlier" local union to represent its employees.

The company wanted a local that would be covered by a no-raid pact and would give the employer at least a 25% competitive advantage over its competitors. I helped set up that local union, and then helped structure a long-term collective agreement designed to restrict movement within the employer's operations. The idea was to create a system in which no union would challenge our right to collect dues and other employer-paid monies. A seniority system was created that discouraged movement within the employer's departments and work sites: If members can't communicate, they are powerless to challenge the union or employer.

Was this deal a big secret within industry and labour circles? Not at all. Was this deal an exception? Not really. Weren't the union members outraged? Of course they were, but what were they going to do—decertify? Not likely. In their minds, a bad union is better than no union at all. And in many jurisdictions such as B.C., the law says the entire bargaining unit must decertify. You cannot decertify one, two or a few stores.

Rank-and-file union members don't have the money, opportunity or expertise to organize grass-roots revolt. In fact, one B.C. grocery chain fired an employee for talking union reform, and another's representatives searched an employee's personal effects for union reform literature, telling him his "activities must cease within the workplace" or it "could result in the termination of [his] employment."

Unions do have the money, opportunity and expertise, but that's where the inter-union and CLC no-raid pacts and policies come into play. The CLC constitution prohibits one CLC union from recruiting or even talking to another union's members.

Trade unionists will argue that enforcement of such a policy keeps unions focused on representing members and fighting employers rather than expending precious resources fending off competing unions. Heck, you'd think they've never heard of client satisfaction as a way to raid-proof their bargaining units.

Few, if any, unions are trade- or craft-based today. It doesn't matter what industry or business workers are in; if they have a heartbeat, any union will sign them up. One international union goes as far as to exhort its organizers to increase "market share." That's a business term if I've ever heard one. Unions are no longer brotherhoods, fraternities or guilds; they are businesses whose purpose is to serve the interests of their shareholders.

The big difference between the corporate business and the union business is that governments more tightly regulate corporations. Government enforcers would have an employer roped and hog-tied if it ever conspired to restrict trade or prevent customers from finding another supplier. However, for some reason, it's OK when unions do it.

I commend Buzz Hargrove and the CAW for promising to uphold the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for Canadian workers. However, it remains to be seen whether CAW has the fortitude to carry out its threat, or if it will bend to the wrath of the CLC and federations. The provincial and federal governments must step in to enforce laws that should have stopped the CLC Charter violations and other union collusion that is detrimental to Canadian business and its employees.

Reprinted with permission of the author and the National Post.

 

Hugh Finnamore is a former official with the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Teamsters, and a senior consultant at Workplace Strategies Inc.

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