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Enter Stage Gabbing

The iron fist inside the velvet glove of labour law

By Steven Martinovich

The Professor(October 3, 2005) Liberty is one of those concepts that are deceptively simple. The history of political thought, however, shows that liberty means different things to different people. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, liberty meant that people were given the freedom through action, typically by government, to achieve their potential. Isaiah Berlin argued on the other hand that liberty meant people were free from coercion and interference from others.

Students in first-year political science classes will no doubt recognize these basic definitions as negative and positive liberty, the subject of debate between the right and the left for centuries. Unfortunately the definitions aren't merely fodder for academic debate, as several employees of a Lively, Ontario bank have found out.

It was reported recently that seven employees -- the entire non-management staff of a bank in the small town just outside of Sudbury -- were being forced to unionize by the United Steelworkers of America. The employees made it clear that they had no interest in joining the union but the USWA made it clear that it would not take no for an answer.

Organizers harassed the women at both home and work. One had organizers show up at her home one evening before last Christmas and stayed for over 1 1/2 hours until she agreed to sign a union card. The persistence of the union's campaign was such that all the employees complained to the Canada Industrial Relations Board complaining of intimidation and demanded a secret ballot to settle the issue.

If they expected relief from the CIRB they were sorely disappointed. Despite the clear opposition of the employees, the board sided with the union. They were told that that because more than 50 per cent of employees at the bank's other eight branches across the Canadian Shield had signed union cards, they would be unionized whether they wanted to be or not.

Despite the unlikelihood that it will be reversed, the women have decided to hire a lawyer and challenge the CIRB's decision. They are arguing that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees Canadians the right to free association and by extension, the right to not associate.

The union isn't particularly interested in their viewpoint. USWA Ontario/Atlantic Director Wayne Fraser argued last month that, "Workers have the right to belong to and participate in unions. Canadian law protects that right. Of course, workers can choose not to participate, however, the union also has a legal duty to represent their interests, regardless of their support or lack thereof. The union cannot decline to provide legal and other services to workers who choose not to sign a union card."

One can hardly blame unions for being so aggressive in adding members. Labour relations laws in Canada are conducive to organizing and increasing membership equals more money and power. A recent report by the Fraser Institute noted that half the provinces allow automatic certification without even the formality of a secret ballot. Not one province prohibits mandatory union membership in bargaining agreements as a condition of employment. In 1946 the Supreme Court even ruled that workers may have to pay union dues as a condition of employment even if they aren't members of unions -- known as the Rand Formula.

The seven employees aren't stooges for the political right as the USWA and other unions have accused in press releases. The "Lively Seven" -- as the National Citizens Coalition, who is assisting them in their legal fight, has dubbed them -- are merely asserting the rights the Charter has ostensibly granted them. Legally, of course, they haven't a leg to stand on as the relevant labour law is quite clear. Morally, however, they occupy the high ground.

The right of association -- the basic principle that unions rely on to exist -- implies the consent of both parties. To force a person to join and financially support an organization whose aims they disagree with makes a mockery of the choice the right to associate demands.

It is inarguable that the Canadian labour movement has made countless contributions on behalf of its membership. By forcing unionization on unwilling workers, however, the USWA and other unions destroy their own credibility when they raise the issue of worker rights. The USWA is right: workers have the right to organize. They also have the right to decline.

Thanks for reading,

Steven Martinovich


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