I’d originally planned to use this event as the jumping off point for a discussion about the tension between worker choice and union cartel behaviour and the politics of raiding. But the story itself also proved to be pretty interesting, providing insight into how unions can cause and respond to member dissatisfaction. So I decided to foreground the story.
The Steelworkers represented what I’ll call the professional staff at UNA (as distinct from the clerical and administrative staff) by virtual of a voluntary recognition agreement between Steel and UNA. The skills of the bargaining-unit members (i.e., union staffers) means that the unit is mostly self-sufficient in terms of bargaining, grievances, and other membership servicing tasks. For the most part, then, the unit was left alone by Steel manage its internal affairs (which was sesible for the unit).
During COVID, UNA staffers began working from home. In mid-2021, when UNA called the staffers back to work in the office, the bargaining unit asked UNA to negotiate some flexibility and terms around working from home. UNA said “nope” and referred matters to the next round of bargaining (which was imminent). The workers never did go back to work in the office that year.
Later, bargaining started and, while the unit tried to negotiate some flexible-work language, once again UNA called the workers back to the office. Calling the workers back to the office, according to the bargaining unit, constituted a change in the terms and conditions of work during bargaining, something employers are prohibited from doing.
The bargaining unit filed an unfair labour practice complaint against UNA about this change during the “freeze period”, after telling Steel they were going to, and getting a provisional blessing. Subsequently, a different Steel representative decided the bargaining unit did not have the authority to file an unfair and ordered the bargaining unit to withdraw it. The bargaining unit basically said “yeah, no” and Steel reconsidered.
UNA’s response to the unfair questioned whether the bargaining unit had standing to file an unfair at the Labour Board. Steel’s submission also seemed to question the unit’s standing to file the unfair, which sat poorly with many members of the bargaining unit.
This interference in the unfair crystallized long-term dissatisfaction among many members of the bargaining unit and triggered an organizing drive to replace Steel with an independent union. (The acronym of the Union of Labour Professionals (ULP) is also a commonly used acronym for an unfair labour practice complaint.)
Selecting a Different Bargaining Agent
Alberta’s Labour Relations Code, like labour laws in all Canadian jurisdictions, allows unionized worker to periodically revisit their choice of which union will be their bargaining agent. During these “open periods”, workers can:
- take no action and thus remain represented by their existing union,
- have a different union apply to be certified at their new bargaining agent (colloquially called a raid), or
- file a revocation application to become a non-unionized group of workers.
The policy rationale underlying open periods is that they hold unions accountable to their members by giving the members the option to periodically revoke their consent to be represented by the union. This option backstops other union accountability mechanisms, such as union’s internal democratic structures (that workers can attempt to use to change union policy) and unions’ duties to fairly represent members during grievance handling.
When ULP filed a certification application with the Alberta Labour Relations Board, the Steelworkers took steps to try and retain the bargaining unit as a Steel unit. Additionally, some members circulated information to bargaining unit members about the effect of a decertification vote, including that the collective agreement with the employer would be terminated. This is a pretty typical tactic designed to highlight the costs of leaving the union.
This gambit ran into two problems:
- this was a raid, wherein a new union would inherit the collective agreement, not a decertification, wherein the collective agreement is terminated, and
- the members of the bargaining unit (i.e., union staffers) were savvy enough to know that.
The accounts of the meeting I have is that Steel had no coherent presentation and said just wanted to learn about the concerns of the members. Given that a certification had been filed and a vote was likely, this seems like a mis-step: things were well beyond “tell us about your concerns”.
This approach also ceded the initiative to the bargaining unit members, who demanding to see financial statements related to their dues and policies around access to the strike fund. The answers provided by Steel were partial and unsatisfactory and further galvanized support for leaving.
It also opened the door to a member querying whether Steel would be raising objections to the certification application at the Labour Board or would let members democratically decide the matter. The framing of this question neatly backed Steel into a corner (i.e., agree to raise no objections or look anti-democratic) and, in the end, Steel agreed to not raise any objections.
The eventual vote was 29-13 in favour of leaving (about 69%) and the Labour Board recognized the ULP as the new bargaining agent. ULP then served notice on UNA to bargain (or continue bargaining from where Steel left off—that seems to be a bit up in the air at the moment). As the vote suggests, not every member was thrilled with the decision to leave Steel and/or to join an independent union.
The Politics of Raiding
Raiding (when one union tries to recruit members who are already represented by another union) is an extremely contentious issue within the Canadian labour movement. The argument against raiding basically come to down to raiding being divisive (i.e., pitting unions against one another, when they should be cooperating) and wasteful of resources (which could be better spent on servicing members and organizing unrepresented works). There is also concern about the de-stabilizing effect of large-scale raids on the raided unions (which lose dues revenue when they lose members).
Many unions are affiliates of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and affiliates are often referred to as being a part of “the House of Labour”. This terminology is essentially a legitimacy claim that throws shade at non-affiliated unions, suggesting that they are in some way suspect (more on that below). The CLC’s constitution bars raiding by its member affiliates. Article 4.5.a 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.The CLC constitution also sets out a process for handling efforts by members of CLC-affiliated unions who seek representation by a different union. These provisions basically serve as an impediment to workers changing bargaining agents by bureaucratizing the process and disincentivizing affiliates from seeking to represent such workers.
In this way, the bar on raiding prioritizes union stability (which is not an inherently bad thing) over worker choice. Workers, of course, retain their statutory right to seek a different bargaining agent during an open period and, at times, CLC affiliates have left the House of Labour (e.g., Unifor in 2018) as a result of raiding (and/or in order to raid).
To navigate these circumstances (wherein no union with “the House of Labour” was likely to agree to represent them, given that Steel was already the recognized bargaining agent), UNA staffers decided to create their own non-affiliated union. This new union may (or may not) decide to affiliate with the House of Labour at a later date.
Non-affiliated unions exist throughout Canada. They are sometimes criticized as being lesser unions, perhaps subject to employer domination and/or unable to provide competent representation and support. Sometimes this criticism seems to ring true, such as with the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC). Other time, such as with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, it doesn’t.
In this case, I don’t see much reason for concern. The ULP comprises staffers of a trade union (UNA), who are, by virtue of their professions, able to provide skilled representation. They are also, by virtue of their dispositions, unlikely to be employer dominated. Other union staff in Alberta (such as those who work for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees) are also represented by independent unions.
If there is a legitimate potential concern about ULP’s ability to serve its members, it might be that the union has not yet accrued significant financial resources to, for example, allow it to provide its members with strike pay. Given the relatively high pay of ULP members, this is unlikely to be a significant barrier to job action, should the union take it. Further, the members of ULP are pretty sophisticated about union matters and would have considered that risk when they decided to cast their vote.
-- Bob Barnetson