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Ottawa needs to proscribe CUPE's anti-Israel agenda

Bob Dale, Ottawa needs to proscribe CUPE's anti-Israel agenda, The National Post, January 06, 2009

"People like Sid Ryan ...never seem to complain when Hamas lobs more than 8,000 missiles at civilian targets in Sderot, Ashkelon, and other cities within the internationally recognized borders of Israel"

So CUPE Ontario is at it again. The union, or at least its leadership, just doesnít like Israel, the Middle Eastís only real democracy, and is once more devoting the staff and other resources it funds from its membersí dues to yet another anti-Israel campaign.

This time, CUPE wants to prevent Israeli academics, the winners of more Nobel prizes per capita than any other country in the world, from teaching in Ontarioís universities. The ostensible reason? Israelís December 29 bombing that damaged the Islamic University in Gaza, a hotbed of Islamic extremism and most likely one of the places where the terrorist organization Hamas stored rockets and missiles used to bomb innocent civilians in Israeli border towns over the past several years.

That doesnít matter to CUPE, which has somehow decided that no matter what happens in the Middle East, Israel is always in the wrong. Thatís one reason why the union helps fund Israel Apartheid Week at the University of Toronto, and why it helps fund glossy anti-Israel brochures and pamphlets that are given wide distribution.

Wait a minute, you ask, what does CUPE know about the Middle East anyway? Arenít CUPE members city employees, nurses and other hospital workers, university and college staff members, and similar non-political animals? Yes they are. But like most other unions, CUPE is really run by a relatively small group of activists, who gain office because most union members focus on doing the jobs theyíve been hired to do instead of involving themselves in union politics.

Many of the things unions do are important: for example, unions help bargain for better wages, benefits, health and safety conditions, and job security in this era of downsizing. Thatís why many people get involved in their unions. But a significant portion of union efforts are devoted to other causes, some of which might even work against the things you and I consider against your best interest Ė like CUPEís obsessive anti-Israel campaigns.

How did this happen? The original motivation was solid. Almost sixty years ago, Supreme Court Justice Ivan Rand handed down a decision that requires all employees in a bargaining unit to pay union dues, whether they are members of their union or not. His decision was based on the fact that all employees, not just those who belong to the bargaining unit, benefit from their collective agreements. The Rand Formula is now an accepted part of the Canadian industrial relations system.

In the mid-1980s, Merv Lavigne, a community college teacher in Northern Ontario, got upset when he found out his union dues were being used, in part, to support political causes he disliked. Mr. Lavigne had no problem with his dues going towards activities aimed at improving his wages and working conditions. But he felt that their use for political purposes, for example, funding groups who supported military disarmament or large-scale strikes in far off countries, or financially supporting the New Democratic Party, went well beyond his interests and those of his fellow union members.

Mr. Lavigne sued his union (OPSEU), claiming he should only be forced to pay the part of his union dues that applied to strict collective bargaining matters.

Lavigneís case was appealed right up to the Supreme Court of Canada, which issued a landmark decision in 1991. It basically confirmed that Mr. Lavigneís union could indeed use his dues for political purposes, based on the reasoning that in todayís economy, unions often have important social goals as well as their traditional functions. Canadian unions naturally consider the Lavigne case to be a great victory, and millions of dollars of union membersí dues continue to be used each year for political purposes, supporting causes both within Canada and around the world. While some of these causes impact Canadian workers, many others have little or nothing to do with their interests.

For example, CUPE and other unions fund campaigns that portray Israel as an oppressive, apartheid state that without cause regularly and uncaringly institutes oppressive and brutal practices against the Palestinian people. I have even greater difficulty when slick union publications back up these allegations with distorted, and extremely dishonest, historical overviews of the founding of the State of Israel and its aftermath, with computer-generated pictures that deliberately mislead their readers. However, my biggest problem is that this material isnít produced by some fringe union group, but is the result of a deliberate policy decision by union executives and a handful of union activists, people like Sid Ryan and his ilk, who never seem to complain when Hamas lobs more than 8,000 missiles at civilian targets in Sderot, Ashkelon, and other cities within the internationally recognized borders of Israel.

Some of us have tried to find a way of making unions return to doing what the vast majority of their members (and dues payers) expect of them Ė namely, bargaining for wages, benefits, and other work-related issues. I have personally spoken to my MP, who is a Cabinet minister; to another local MP here in Ottawa; and to Senator Marjory LeBreton, the Conservative leader in the Senate, asking for legislation that would prevent unions from handling members' dues as CUPE has done. All have expressed surprise and indignation at this use of union dues, but have done nothing about it, citing other priorities.

Given this new CUPE campaign, which probably isnít its last directed at Israel or other allies, I have a suggestion. Isnít it time all well-meaning Canadians lobbied Prime Minister Harper and his Cabinet to take another look at the Rand Formula and the Lavigne decision, to ensure that these tools, put in place to help working people, arenít abused by those who have agendas that are far more distasteful? A change in current labour law would be a refreshing addition to the governmentís agenda in this session of Parliament.

Bob Dale is former chief economist of the National Union of Public and General Employees.

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