Unions Yes, Coercion No
Compelling contributions by all represented by the union, all who benefit from the union's attempt to push the general political, social and economic environment in a direction favourable to unions and their members, provides the union with the stable financial base needed to underwrite political, economic and social activism.
—Mr. Justice Gerald La Forest, Supreme Court of Canada (June 27, 1991)
If freedom is threatened anywhere, it is threatened everywhere.
—Vaclav Havel, "A Call for Sacrifice," Foreign Affairs (March/April, 1994)
"We will squeeze you like a grape and put you out of business." This is what a union rep told a small Ontario employer whose workers wanted to decertify the union. Tenders for work on a sprinkler system for Exhibition Place in Toronto invite applications only from contractors affiliated with a few select unions. In Kitchener, a new fire hall tendering announcement notes that only bricklayers affiliated with either of two unions will be considered.
These are common, everyday occurrences. It's what happens when freedom exists on paper only—the Charter's freedom of association guarantee. In practice, unions have run roughshod over Canadian workers' and employers' rights ever since legislators and courts put their stamp of approval on compulsory unionism.
The examples above are minor compared to some of the more extreme examples of what happens when the principle of freedom of association is neglected.
Consider the uprising of angry, unemployed union workers in Nova Scotia who burned down a partially-completed apartment building in Sydney. They were protesting the use of nonunion labour on the project (see story p. 7). Or think of the draconian measures imposed on Quebec's construction workers who face fines or imprisonment for the "crime" of trying to earn an honest day's pay (see story p. 6). In B.C., some construction workers have to pay $1,000 to "buy" their jobs on a major highway construction project. And many workers will never see a penny of their earned pension money on this project.
Majority supports choice
The Work Research Foundation is convinced that workers need more than just lip service on the issue of freedom of association. Consequently, it has initiated a public research and education project to explore and analyze the current views about unions and, particularly, their membership requirements and collective bargaining practices.
On March 24, 1997 the Foundation released the results of a national survey of 1,504 Canadian adults on their opinions about trade unions. The poll, conducted by the Angus Reid group in cooperation with social trends analyst Dr. Reginald Bibby of the University of Lethbridge, surveyed Canadians' attitudes in every region of the country. The results were analyzed by Dr. Bibby in a report entitled Canadians and Unions: A National Survey of Current Attitudes.
When asked whether they, "as a qualified worker, should be able to work for anyone willing to hire you, whether or not you belong to a union?," 90 per cent said yes. When Gallup asked the same question in 1957, 80 per cent agreed. In a fol-low-up question, the survey asked whether all workers should be forced to become a member of a union if the majority of the workers in the company have chosen that union—60 per cent disagreed.
The poll found that 75 per cent of respondents opposed clauses that restrict bidding to companies that have contracts with unions, and that it makes little difference whether the projects are privately or publicly funded. Eighty-two per cent agreed that the use of mandatory union dues in support of a political party or other nonunion cause is inappropriate.
Nine out of ten Canadians are of the opinion that the confrontational approach to collective bargaining, espoused by many unions and employers, should make way for cooperation between the two parties.
Dr. Bibby summarized the findings of this survey as follows:
It should surprise no one that the culturally prevalent themes of freedom, consultation, and cooperation run through these findings. The mood of the country is one where freedom should be experienced in the workplace—where people and companies should be able to work when they are qualified to work, where individuals have a measure of freedom in joining unions and paying dues, and have input into how their dues are being used. And overall, Canadians are maintaining that, in the late 90s, cooperation between unions and employers is both possible and preferable to confrontation.
What has become abundantly clear from the findings of this major national survey is that Canadians believe that collective bargaining and trade unions are important institutions and deserving of support, but they object to the unions' practices of forcing members to join or support a particular union as a condition of employment. That's really not so surprising. If unions are, as they claim to be and as labour legislation says they should be, freely chosen, democratic organizations of workers, how can we justify the coercive membership practices that are common in Canada today?
After the release of this report to the major media outlets in Canada, its findings received a lot of exposure. Clips aired on the CBC National News, Channel 11 News, CBC radio's Metro Morning, and Radio Noon, phone-in shows on CHQR (Calgary), CFPL (London), and CBC Newfoundland. Print media coverage included articles in the Globe and Mail, Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Halifax Daily News, Hamilton Spectator, and Financial Post.
Buzz Hargrove, the blunt-talking head of the Canadian Auto Workers, felt it necessary to respond to the media coverage of the survey. He was quoted in the Globe and Mail as saying that it is a misperception to think that unions are confrontational. The proof he provided is that the auto industry in Canada has had far fewer strikes than the one in the U.S.
Gord Wilson, President of the Ontario Federation of Labour, responded to the survey via a radio call-in program on a London station where WRF's Project Director, Ray Pennings, was discussing the survey's implications. Wilson was also interviewed on the CBC Radio Noon program immediately following Ray's appearance on the same program. He argued that the survey was obviously slanted and biased against unions. The host then asked whether Angus Reid had asked misleading questions. Wilson had to admit that he had no problem with the questions actually used in the survey, but he nevertheless tried hard to dismiss it as mere anti-union propaganda.
Wilson tried to justify compulsory union membership as a normal outcome of democratic decisionmaking in a particular workplace. In other words, according to him, it is normal democratic procedure for the majority to tell the minority that unless they join the union they are not allowed to work there.
He further defended compulsory membership and dues payment by comparing it to paying taxes. In doing so, he argued that the union may assume the power of coercion that is unique to the state. This position confirms that Wilson's view of trade unionism is directed by a political ideology that ignores the fundamental distinction between the public nature of the state and the private nature of society. But this kind of unionism has strayed a long way from sticking to the unions' specific labour relations task. No wonder some workers do not want to be coerced into such a politicized organization.
Everyone will readily agree that membership in a political party, service club, or church may never be coerced. But why is it that many unions have gotten away with violating the same basic right of freedom of association?
The response of Hargrove and Wilson and other guests on the various call-in programs adds further proof that unions are in need of some critical self-examination and change in their policies. As Dr. Bibby stated in summarizing the decisive finding of this survey: "The anticipated response of some leaders to these survey results may well provide insight into why these freedom, consultation, and cooperation themes have had difficulty finding their way into the workplace. Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that these findings will provoke and stimulate, and thereby contribute as necessary to change that elevates life for workers specifically and Canadians more generally."
The Financial Post responded to the survey with an editorial (April 2, 1997) which concluded: "By opposing the democratization of the workplace, labor leaders are revealing their true motivation—they are afraid that if workers are given a choice, union powers will be seriously diminished. Instead of clinging to outdated and restrictive labor practices, these same leaders should focus on trying to convince employees of the benefits of union membership."
On April 9, the Financial Post published an extensive letter written by Ray Pennings, in which he makes the following observations:
The extreme "right-to-work" position advocates that individual workers should be allowed to opt out of the collective agreement—this would have the effect of undermining the necessary foundations on which meaningful collective bargaining can take place. It asserts that employment relations are ultimately individual relations between workers and employers. At a pure theoretical level, it reduces workers to a commodity that can be bought or sold to the highest bidder.....
Mainstream union practices need reform, as do the adversarial mindset of some business leaders toward workers. But improvement isn't achieved by swinging the pendulum too far in an anti-union direction. Both extreme collectivism and extreme individualism are problematic.
The solution rests in a balance that supports collective bargaining, but also respects workers and protects them from coercive practices, whether by unions or employers.
This survey has established that a majority of nearly 60 per cent of Canadians approves of unions. But there appears to be a groundswell of opinion that unions are badly in need of examining their practices. They need to look for new ways to make the institutions of collective bargaining and labour unions attractive to workers who want to be invited, not forced. They want unions to serve them, not be coerced into serving unions.
Gift and responsibility
It's time for a change. This WRF-sponsored survey, which one labour-reporter described as "the most definitive study on unions in Canada," will prove a useful foundation for future discussions in the way industrial relations are practised in Canada.
Yet there is something out of sync here.
Why is it that compulsion is practised in most unionized workplaces, whereas a large majority of Canadians favour freedom of choice? How is it that even legislators and courts have sanctioned this destruction of freedom?
The answer is complex. But one important reason is that labour-management relations are perceived to be essentially a power struggle between two adversaries. In that struggle, workers must be loyal and, if need be, forced to be loyal to their own "class." Did not Jean Jacques Rousseau say that people may well have to be forced to be free?
Another element in this anomaly is the smug assumption that our freedoms are only threatened by outside forces—communism, fascism, or other forms of dictatorship. The unpleasant truth, however, is that freedom can be lost gradually, stealthily, by forces (ideas) that are home-grown and function like a Trojan horse. You can be certain that this is happening when people are lethargic or cowed and refuse to stand up in defence of freedom—a precious gift and responsibility.
The benefit of this survey is that it can serve as a reminder that those who value freedom have a lot of company. Now to inspire that company. That's the challenge, and it belongs to all of us.Subscribe