Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The case for union raiding

A last week back, Unifor withdrew from the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). Larry Savage wrote a pretty good explanation of the dispute here. One of the sources of friction appears to be the CLC’s prohibition of raiding among its member unions.

Typically, labour laws create regular “open period” during which unionized workers can choose to be represented by another union or no union at all. (If the workers take no action during this period, they remain unionized and represented by their existing union.) Raiding entails a union seeking to become the certified bargaining agent for a group of employees already represented by another union during this open period.

Many trade unionists and labour federations argue that unions should focus their efforts on organizing the unorganized rather than seeking to raid already unionized workers. They also note that raiding is also a ploy often used by employer-friendly labour organizations—such as the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC)—to expand their membership (often with the tacit support of the employer) at the expense of real unions.

For this reason, labour federations typically prohibit raiding. For example, Article 4.5.a of the CLC Constitution states:
Each affiliate respects the established collective bargaining relationships of every other affiliate. No affiliate will try to organize or represent employees who have an established bargaining relationship with another affiliate or otherwise seek to disrupt the relationship. 
There is, later on, a process by which union members can seek a change in union representation within the framework, but the constitution indicates that this process will "(h)ave as a primary objective, working with the affected members and the affiliate, to have them remain with their union" (Article 4.9.h.i).

Looking through these provisions, the practical reality is that unionized workers whose whose current and desired unions belong to the CLC, will be forced to decertify (which essentially voids their collective agreement) and then recertify (with all of the risk that that entails).

Governments recognize this would be a very high-cost process for workers (and thus one that would impede workers from exercising choice) so most legislation provides for an option to raid (which results in a relatively seamless transfer of bargaining rights and collective agreements).

Raiding often causes significant friction within the labour movement. For example, the 2001 expulsion of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) from the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) was caused (at least, in part) by AUPE’s raiding of Canadian Union of Public Employee (CUPE) units. AUPE continues to operate independently and is now Alberta's largest union and one of the most aggressive organizers of workers.

Voicing any kind of approval of raiding is a quick way to get frozen out of the labour movement. Yet there are some compelling arguments for allowing this practice.

First, unions have fought for constitutional protection of workers’ right to join unions, bargain, and strike. If the workers have a Charter right to join a union, surely it is also reasonable for workers to expect to be able to periodically select a different union?

While unions are free to join an organization like the CLC and thereby bind themselves to a constitution that prohibits raiding (a document outside the ambit of the Charter), such a prohibition looks hypocritical given unions’ defence of workers’ freedom of association.

Second, raiding (which is relatively uncommon) provides workers with an important protection against poor union representation. The CLC constitution explicitly contemplates addressing poor representation in its dispute process and aims to identify problems and give the union time to remedy them.

While it is true that union members dissatisfied with their representation can attempt reform through internal union processes (e.g., persuasion or electing a different executive) or the CLC process, these processes sometimes don’t work. They entail delay and delay typically tends to work in favour of the more powerful party (in this case, almost always the union executive) which can use the delay to pressure dissidents to knuckle under.

In the end, I think the threat of a raid is a more powerful incentive for unions to be attentive to the needs of their members. Further, if a union is doing such a poor job that it gets raided, the raid is probably a good thing for workers overall.

If the labour movement is about representing workers' interests, then perhaps allowing workers to periodically switch unions (through a democratic process) is not an unreasonable thing to expect. Constraining worker choice hands opponents of trade unionism a powerful rhetorical tool with which to attack unionism.

-- Bob Barnetson

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