WRF Prepares Extensive Report on Freedom of Association
The Work Research Foundation initiated a research project investigating the issue of freedom of association in collective bargaining in 1997. Its starting premise is that collective bargaining is an important institution in Canada that needs to be strengthened, not through coercion but through choice.
The Angus Reid Group, in a survey commissioned by WRF in 1997, found that a majority of Canadians, while in favour of unions generally, oppose many of the current practises of Canadian unions. They particularly object to practises that seriously compromise individual rights in the context of collective representation. Canadians want a better balance.
As a follow up to these findings, the WRF undertook to research the state of freedom of association for workers across Canada. The paper, Workers, Unions, and Choice: A Status Report, was prepared by Jennifer Wunsch, WRF's Media Relations Assistant. It provides an overview of current union practices, references numerous court cases and government decisions, and outlines the legal principles and relevant legislation affecting freedom of association. It also highlights some alarming examples of incidents where this issue has turned ugly and violent.
WRF's purpose in researching this paper is to have an accurate reference document providing detailed background information for those seeking a deeper and broader understanding of the issue of freedom of association. In our view, many Canadians are still not aware of the extent of the erosion of this fundamental right.
Government and the courts
The paper discusses the role of the Supreme Court of Canada, which has heard several significant cases on this issue. The Court has consistently ruled that while infringements on the right to freely associate have occurred, those restrictions are "reasonable" in the context of collective bargaining.
Backed by public opinion, WRF challenges this conclusion reached in the court of law. Ongoing public education and discussion of the courts' support for compulsory union practises may affect future cases. The Supreme Court has demonstrated a desire to reflect the standards of the community in other cases; we trust that it will do likewise in the future with respect to freedom of association.
Unfortunately, many governments at the federal, provincial, and local level (through municipal assemblies and school boards) have actively participated in denying individual freedoms through restrictive tender and bid conditions stipulating particular union affiliation. A good example of government complicity reviewed in the paper is the B.C. government's Island Highway Project agreement. As a requirement for working on the Project, all workers had to join certain specified unions, regardless of either their past or current union affiliation.
The paper also examines how ready governments and appointed officials were to sign off workers' freedom of association during provincial health care restructuring. In many cases, governments are telling workers' which unions they must belong to.
Unions have a significant impact on the daily working lives of Canadians. They spend thousands of members' dollars on controversial social causes entirely unrelated to the workplace. It's an absolute disgrace that our elected leaders so flippantly disrespect the fundamental right of Canadians to choose union representation freely.
Consider the remarks of Justice Pritchard to a Saskatchewan health care union about to lose most of its members through government restructuring: "The real issue is not the freedom to choose what union to belong to but the freedom to choose which union is to be their bargaining unit." Really? Is belonging to a trade union not for the purpose of representation as a bargaining agent? Don't employees have the right to choose the union that best reflects their preferred principles, representation style, and bargaining objectives?
Besides highlighting incidents of union coercion, the paper also looks at the practice of certain unions in restricting union choice through Job Targeting Programs (JTPs). A separate WRF research paper, the first comprehensive analysis in Canada on the practice of using JTPs, also known as stabilization funds, is about to be released. This practice is one of many used by the construction industry building trade unions to "maintain a loose monopoly of the skilled labour pool." Unfortunately, as is usually the case where monopoly practices exist, the denial of certain individual rights is a given.
This paper makes it clear that the practice of denying freedom of association is widespread, both in terms of geography and sector. Further, the impact on workers rights is not fully understood or respected. The right of Canadians to be free to associate—and to not associate—with whom they choose is a fundamental right.
While collective bargaining is a valid and important undertaking, it must be done in a fashion that gives greater recognition to the individuals it purports to represent. Collective objectives need to be balanced with individual rights and freedoms. It's hoped that by shedding some light on the denial of this basic human right, workers' freedom to choose will be given the room to flourish.