Monday, November 1, 2010

PC Alberta AGM weekend: unions flex muscle (again)

Section 29 of the Alberta Labour Relations Code explicitly allows unions to demand collective agreements whereby "all the employees... are required to be members of a trade union." Only employees who convince the Labour Relations Board that their "religious belief" prohibits them from being a union member are exempt from this coercion, in which case an employee could potentially get his or her union dues directed to a charity instead of the union.

When Edmonton McClung introduced its motion to bar unions from forcing Albertans to pay dues that are then used for political purposes, the constituency association noted that Alberta is one of the few jurisdictions in the world that denies individual employees the right to opt out of having to pay mandatory union dues that are then used for political messaging.

In early 2008, in the lead up to the March 3 provincial election, an outfit calling itself "Albertans for Change" but in fact run by union bosses ran a series of TV and radio attack ads paid for by forced union dues. When the Merit Contractors Association and the National Citizens' Coalition called attention to the fact that this astroturf group was using mandatory dues for activities unrelated to the core union activities of collective bargaining and grievance administration, the Alberta Federation of Labour responded saying Merit Contractors and the NCC were "simply trying to further their union busting agenda" and cited a 1991 Supreme Court of Canada case, Lavigne v. OPSEU. However, Mr Lavigne was not a member of and not required to join a union, unlike the case in Alberta where union membership is often forced. Indeed, when the Canadian Civil Liberties Association intervened in the case to support the union position, the CCLA concluded that "Lavigne's protection is in his right to join or not to join" a union. Remove that protection and the Lavigne case is distinguishable.

Alberta Union of Public Employees spokesman David Climenhaga trotted out the "but the courts say" argument on his personal blog after the Wildrose Alliance AGM earlier this year to contend that passing a particular "right to work" law would be "a pointless gesture." The McClung members who proposed the motion here anticipated this sort of retort, however, by attaching a legal opinion solicited by Merit Contractors from a Calgary law firm.

I might add that, in specific response to blogger Ken Chapman's claims that the facts cited by the motion's supporters were "unsubstantiated" and in need of "proof," the union practices at issue here are prohibited in New Zealand, Australia, the United States, and the 47 countries of the Council of Europe. While far left Canadian judges like Claire L'Heureux-Dubé have held that freedom of association implies no freedom to not associate, Article 20(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly affirms that negative right: "No one may be compelled to belong to an association."

The European Council of Human Rights, perhaps the most famous of the Council of Europe's bodies, ruled in 1981 by an 11 to 3 vote that a 1975 agreement between British Rail and three trade unions requiring union membership as a condition of employment violated Section 11 (freedom of association) of the European Convention on Human Rights (to which all Council members are a party). The 2006 case Sørensen & Rasmussen v. Denmark made it clear that a "closed shop" is still in violation even if it were made clear to a prospective job applicant in advance that union membership would be a condition of employment. "[T]here is little support in the Contracting States for the maintenance of closed shop agreements," the Court added. The 2007 decision Evaldsson et al v. Sweden prohibited the use of union dues from non-members for non-bargaining (ie political) purposes, with the Court disapprovingly noting that "they had to pay the fees against their will to an organization with a political agenda."

Although it is currently the case that in the United States unions can spend a member’s dues on politics, members have the right to opt out, a right that is currently denied in Alberta. Unions are currently in a panic about Republican gains in elections tomorrow because of fears that the GOP will change the obscure opt out procedure to an opt in requirement for dues union leaders want to spend on politics.

At this weekend's PC Alberta AGM, union supporters tried to shout down opponents. When the vote was taken, it appeared close enough that some called for a count, a contention supported by the Edmonton Journal which described the margin as "narrow", but the moderator dismissed a count as unnecessary and the union supporters declared victory. According to CTV, "[d]ozens of people, apparently union members, bought party memberships specifically for that vote and defeated the motion much to the dismay of many long-time party members." The number of "Ten Minute Tories" might well have been significantly higher. In 2006, the Journal reported that a coalition of unions "apparently plans to buy as many as 10,000 Tory memberships" to get their man into the premier's chair. As it is, the current chair of the government caucus, Robin Campbell, is a former union boss. South of the border in New Jersey, the AFL-CIO spends a quarter million per year running a "candidate school" to get their (Manchurian) candidates elected, and with considerable success given that this union school "has groomed more than 160 current officeholders."

I nonetheless take some comfort in the fact a few grassroots PC members came to the AGM prepared to get their battle on against this economic phenomenon known as a labour supply monopoly or, in popular parlance, a union. At the Wildrose Alliance AGM during the summer, there was essentially no floor battle to speak of since the unions had, in effect, pulled off an inside job. After cordial meetings with Alberta unions during the months leading up to the AGM, floor-crossing MLAs Rob Anderson and Heather Forsyth spent essentially all of their microphone time on the convention floor lobbying for closed shops and the killing of party planks like the one that protected "the democratic right to a secret ballot," thus precluding the need for more transparently union-affiliated speakers to make the case. Party leader Danielle Smith, who had previously had her own tête à tête with AUPE's boss (photo above at right), told media outside the convention room that the union coddling constituted a display of "sophistication."

I relate the disturbing ties between the Wildrose caucus and union lobbyists in order to note that apparently every elected politician is either running scared from the unions or in their pocket. In the US, the Associated Builders and Contractors (a merit shop coalition) noted a study last year that found that union slush funds had contributed more than $1 billion to contract bidding schemes that increased the cost of construction projects for taxpayers. The equivalent slush funds in Alberta, known as MERFs or "Stab funds", were finally targeted by the Alberta government in 2008 by Bill 26, which also aimed to put a stop to the union practice of "salting" (having their people respond to hiring ads and then, after having been hired just in time to vote to unionize, walking off the job to leave the employer both short manpower and unionized). The schemes Bill 26 corrected were so outrageous the union bosses knew they could not organize popular protests against the bill, but provincial lawmakers were still so afraid of union muscle they passed the bill as the very last measure of the spring 2008 sitting and at 3:15 AM in the morning. Legislature personnel were furthermore so intimidated that security guards at the Leg were placed on high alert.

There are four major political parties in the province (five if you include the Alberta Party) and the leadership and/or caucus of none of them seems prepared to make an issue out of the fact that Alberta tolerates closed shops where Europeans do not, and that provincial legislation adds insult to injury by allowing unions to pile mandatory dues to be used for political lobbying on top of mandatory membership. The PC members who voted against the McClung proposal giving workers a right to opt out of having mandatory dues used to fund leftist causes are ultimately traitors when you consider the fact that in 2008 such money was used to fund a media assault on the PC Party, but "traitor" implies an allegiance that can be betrayed.

Albertans are entitled to a political alternative. The NDP accordingly has a good excuse for, say, not supporting the 29 Old Dutch employees whom the UFCW union and the Alberta Labour Relations Board say should be fired for refusing to pay union dues. For 38 years the UFCW and Old Dutch collective bargaining agreement provided for a voluntary dues check off. In the wake of a lengthy labour dispute, however, UFCW demanded that the dues be made mandatory. Even though mandatory dues are virtually cost free to employers, Old Dutch did not agree. The obvious solution in the union's view then became getting the government to step in and amend the Alberta Labour Code. This summer, the Stelmach government indicated that it would side against the 29 workers. Perhaps the Wildrose Alliance could have said something about this instead of going on about legal disputes in other provinces.


Piotr Pilarski said...

Brian, thanks for this well written and well reseached blog.

After speaking to many PC MLAs, my assessment is that the Building Trade Unions have scared the government from action.

for example, when the Labour Code was amended in 2008, several Ministers has extra security for weeks. I have also been told that the Building Trade Unions threatened that if legislation was changed, all of their workers would walk off their jobs - crippling the oilsands development.

In reality, nothing happened.

The emperor has no cloths!!!!

Unions have lost their power - especially in Alberta. Its time Albertans and Canadians united to stand up to these bullies. We can no longer be held hostage by building trade unions. We must stand up for the rights of the individual workers the union bosses claim to protect! And we must stand up against the union movement which nobody really wants!


MLA Rob Anderson said...

Hi Brian - Rob Anderson here - I regularly read your blog and usually find your comments insightful; however, your recollection of what I spoke to at the convention is innacurate.

I clearly support “right to a secret ballot.” In fact, that topic never even came up at the convention - there was never a resolution vote on it.

Also, the Danielle Smith comment was taken out of context - the comment actually stemmed from a question from a reporter on what we passed and did not pass respecting gun rights - I was right there when she gave it.

The caucus forwarded a resolution (and I think thats what you are talking about in your blog), which I spoke to, which called for a “review of all labour laws to ensure fairness to both union and non-union workers.” The point of this from the caucus perspective was to do a little research and consultation with business, non-union labour groups and union leadership to come up with a series of well thought-out labour law reforms(ie. figure out how a shop with union and non-union workers can work together practically, and whether regular recertification votes would work).

Heather did not speak to the motion - I was assigned with the task and lost (which was fine with us as we respect the colllective wisdom of the grassroots)

I do appreciate your passion on this issue and want you to know I and the caucus share many of the same concerns with our current labour laws. We're just trying to be thorough and make sure we get any proposed reforms right.

All the best and keep up the good blog.

Anonymous said...

I was in the room for the McClung resolution and it was frightening to observe how union members literally bullied the room into submission. Besides the obvious lack of regard that was shown for the process, it was clear that some of those who were present in the room were not official delegates and were not even registered conference attendees. I was standing at the back of the room before the session started and noticed several union people enter the room (self apparent as many of them were wearing union jackets, vests and or pins) and on many of these individuals I did not observe name tags. Also, the moderator did not require the use of the blue card ballots for the vote which could have filtered out those who weren't even supposed to be there. Then after all the union supporters left right after the resolution, I followed them as I was going down to another session and ran into them outside the entrance to the conference room doors where they were having a huddle and congratulating one another before leaving with one distinct comment "see you next year". Clearly many of these individuals were not even delegates at the conference but were told where to be and when so crashed the conference exclusively for this vote. This is undemocratic at best, fraudulent at worst, and seriously undermines the entire resolution process as without the extra union members crashing the session the resolution actually would have passed. How the PC Party allowed this to happen is shameful and embarrassing.

Duncan Kinney said...

Sounds like any old shareholder's meeting to me.

You realize out of any province in Alberta, unions probably have the least influence of anywhere. It's a phantom, a ghost, a boogeyman.

The left was once a force in North America. They had militant anarchist and communist labor unions, an independent, alternative press, social movements and gasp! their own politicians. Yeah, not anymore and especially not in Alberta.

Now you've got virtual homogeneity and still we have otherwise smart people such as yourself bringing up the far left boogeyman. Give it up. The corporations won.

Brian Dell said...

If the "corporations won" I would think someone like John Manley, former federal Finance Minister and current president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives could get elected out west (outside of Vancouver).

Fact is, there is little market for a big-L Liberal out here given the nature of prairie populism. The federal NDP has generally gotten more traction on the prairies than the Liberals. Tommy Douglas and the CCF might indeed be a "ghost" today but not one without influence.

Would you consider the Reform movement, which started in Alberta and effectively took over the federal Progressive Conservative party, a triumph of Bay Street over the "people"? I suggest it was the other way around.

I think it is difficult to contend that Goldman Sachs is running the show in the home of Social Credit. The working man is held in more esteem in Alberta than the hedge fund manager.

Duncan Kinney said...

The winning of elections by random individuals has precious little to do with the argument.

Did you just say, with a straight face, that there is a market for the Liberal party in Alberta? I don't really know what to say to such an obvious falsehood. When you say things like that anything you say about scary unions and the esteem of certain job titles is certainly called into question.

We exist in a corporatist society ergo the corporations won.