Give Workers Choice: Canadian Labour Law, Unlike that of the United States, is Coercive. Workers Should Have a Say About Membership and Dues Payments

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Appeared in the National Post, 06 September 2006

Compared with our southern neighbours, Canadian workers are significantly disadvantaged when it comes to labour laws.

A central aim of labour relations laws should be to balance the right of workers to organize collectively (unionize) with the right of workers to obtain a job without being forced to join and/or financially support a union. Unfortunately, Canadian labour laws are heavily tilted against worker choice in terms of union membership and dues payments as well as the information required to be disclosed by unions.

Much has been written, both scholarly and popularly, regarding the level of worker choice with respect to union membership and dues payment in Canada compared with the United States. Specifically, Canadian workers can be compelled to join a union as a condition of their employment. In addition, Canadian workers covered by collective agreements have no choice but to remit full union dues.

U.S. workers, on the other hand, enjoy significantly more choice. U.S. workers cannot be compelled to join a union. Further, all U.S. workers have an ability to opt-out of union dues that are not related to their representation, such as political advocacy. U.S. workers in 22 Right-to-Work states have a further ability to completely opt-out of all union dues. These differences are, in part, the explanation for why our total unionization rates are so much higher than the United States: 32% versus 13.7% in 2005.

The marked difference in worker choice is exacerbated by equally distinct disparity in union disclosure requirements between the two countries. No Canadian jurisdiction (10 provinces and the federal government) requires unions to publicly disclose financial information. In seven provinces as well as the federal government, unions are required to disclose financial information to unionized employees that request it. However, this information is limited and in most cases, is not anonymous, meaning that workers have to identify themselves in order to receive the information. Also, only four of these eight jurisdictions require financial information to be audited by an independent third-party. Further, no Canadian jurisdiction prescribes or mandates the amount of detail or the presentation of financial information.

More importantly, there is no requirement for a union to distinguish between representation and non-representation spending, which differentiates between activities directly related to the representation of union members covered by a collective agreement, such as bargaining, and activities unrelated to their representation, such as political and social activism. In all Canadian jurisdictions, the details included in the financial statements are at the discretion of the union. Such discretion would be less damaging if workers had a legitimate choice regarding membership and dues payment.

In contrast, the United States, which affords workers more choice with respect to union membership and dues payments, has rigorous and rather stringent public reporting requirements for unions. For example, large unions, defined as those with more than $250,000 in spending, must provide detailed information for 21 informational items and 47 financial items that are organized into two financial statements and 20 supporting schedules. Smaller unions (under $10,000) have less onerous requirements: 13 pieces of information and five financial items. These schedules specifically distinguish between representation-related expenses and non-representation-related spending. In addition, unions in the U.S. must complete and submit specific forms to the Department of Labor, which then posts the submissions on its Web site. This form of disclosure allows complete anonymity for those wishing to review union submissions.

Canadian workers are exposed to a double bias: We can be compelled to join and financially support a union while being highly restricted in our ability to access audited information on how a union uses our money. The lack of worker choice coupled with a serious absence of public disclosure requirements for unions constitutes a far too heavily biased set of labour laws.

The goal of labour laws should be to balance the ability of workers to gain collective representation with the ability of workers to reject such choices. Clearly, Canada’s combination of a lack of worker choice coupled with an absence to publicly disclose financial performance fails to achieve such a balance.

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