Political lobbying doesn't help CUPE member interests
Howard Levitt, Political lobbying doesn't help CUPE member interests, Financial Post, January 14, 2009
Source: Financial Post
CUPE president oversteps mandate
Is Sid Ryan an incorrigible anti-semite? Does it matter? Other than to his friends and family, it shouldn't. But as president of the Ontario division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, his opinions, however bizzare, are meaningful.
Like any Canadian union, CUPE can spend its members' dues and taxpayers' subsidies on its president's idionsyncratic political, arguably racist, peccadillos. The problem is all union members are required by labour relations legislation provincially and federally to contribute money to their unions, whether or not they support its goals.
The right of unions to use these dues as they wish was challenged, and the Supreme Court of Canada upheld that right, saying political initiatives might be used to advance members' interests, in the same way as, or more effectively than, through collective bargaining.
While this argument primarily applies to actions such as supporting sympathetic politicians or political initiatives that create jobs for their members, by the law of unintended consequences, this ruling permits unions to squander dues on things, such as Mr. Ryan's boycott of Israeli professors.
CUPE's initiative, as well as a resolution by the Canadian Union of Public Workers (the postal union) supporting divestment from and the boycott of Israeli products, obviously has nothing to do with their members' interests in obtaining higher wages and better working conditions.
Theoretically, Ryan's resolution must be adopted by CUPE as a whole at its convention. However, such conventions are usually attended by a core group of activists, many of whom are appointed by their Union Locals to attend. So it stands to reason, if they want paid time off to attend further conventions, they had best vote in favour of the resolutions of those appointing them.
Unfortunately, unions also are subsidized by taxpayers through various forms, including tax exemptions. That means Mr. Ryan and his ilk are spending our money, too, on political hobby horses.
Increasingly, activist shareholders and regulatory bodies are providing controls over spurious misadventures by the custodians of corporations' money, with relief coming from the courts. There is no reason unions should be treated differently. If anything, union members require greater protection than do boards of directors and shareholders.
Since unions generally represent employees at hundreds or thousands of companies, those at any one place have limited influence in opposing policies. It would require an organizing effort beyond the ability of most to remove Mr. Ryan and union leaders like him. Union members, dissatisfied with their leadership can decertifiy themselves and either join another union or operate without union representation.
Taxpayers can conduct a boycott of companies whose unions support causes they oppose, unless those companies denounce that initiative, as Canada Post quickly did last year when CUPW passed its Israeli boycott resolution. This strategy won't work with public sector unions, such as CUPE.
However, the government, for its part, should treat unions as they do corporations and pass legislation permitting membership to challenge actions that don't promote their wages and benefits.
Similarly, unions should be required to fully disclose how members dues are spent -- imposing an era of transparency and accountability upon the still Machiavellian, largely unregulated, regime of union-member relations. Then, whatever Mr. Ryan and CUPE leader-ships' views were, it would be less likely they be imposed on their members and Canadians. If Mr. Ryan then wanted to compare Israel's actions to that of Nazis, it would be unfortunate, but relatively innocuous.
Howard Levitt, counsel to Lang Michener LLP, is an employment lawyer practising in eight provinces and author of The Law of Dismissal for Human Resources Professionals. He can be reached at email@example.com
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