Friday, 30 March 2012

It’s time to change the law that requires workers to pay union dues to support political causes


The headline news this morning is that the BCTF plans to campaign to unseat the government in the next election.  A timely opportunity to remind ourselves of the extraordinary advantage that unions in British Columbia enjoy when it comes to politics.  Unlike any other organization in our society, a union can compel bargaining unit employees to contribute to support political causes. 
That’s right.  If you are an employee in a workplace that has been organized by a union, you are required by law to pay dues to the union, and the union is permitted by law to use those funds for political advocacy.  To make donations to political parties, take out ads in support of political parties, all of it. This is not just the way the BCTF membership rules work; it’s the way the BC Labour Relations Code works.
So to put this in the context of today’s announcement, thousands of teachers who are members and supporters of the BC Liberal Party woke up today to discover that their union plans to require them to pay for a political campaign against the party and government they support.
In a word, that is outrageous.
It’s all the more troublesome when, as is the case here, we are talking about a public sector union, whose members are paid by tax dollars.  That means the BCTF campaign against the BC Liberals will effectively be paid for by tax dollars.  Your tax dollars.  My tax dollars. 
I am not aware of any other organization in society that gets this advantage.  I am not arguing here against the compulsory payment of union dues for labour relations purposes.  That’s a good issue for another day.  I can at least understand the logic behind requiring all bargaining unit employees to pay dues to support the union that bargains on their behalf so that it can do the work of bargaining.  But there is no valid labour relations purpose in requiring an employee to pay dues to a union so that it can launch a political campaign.
In my view, that’s a violation of one of our most fundamental and cherished freedoms - the right to decide for ourselves who we want to support politically.
I’m sorry to say that during my time in government we did nothing to remove this legal obligation.  But luckily, there is a bill on the order papers of the BC Legislature right now that would do that very thing.  It’s Bill M 210 - 2011, the Workers’ Dues Transparency and Rights Act.  Introduced by John Rustad, the BC Liberal MLA for Nechako Lakes.
Here’s what it does.  It amends the Labour Relations Code by requiring trade unions to establish a separate labour relations account for the purpose of collecting monies and paying for the core activities in support of their members. It defines those core activities broadly to include all labour relations activities, and then it provides that union dues can only be used for those activities.
Passing this act would protect the democratic rights of all workers to support whichever political party they want to - as an expression of their own choice, not the decision made in a union head office - without in any way compromising the ability of unions to represent the labour relations interests of its members.  It strikes exactly the right balance.  It is timely, and it is overdue for enactment.
Note to BC House Leader:  why not call this bill for second reading debate when the House resumes on April 16? 


Postscript:

A point of clarification, after reading Ryan's reply (below).  I am not opposed to political advocacy by the labour movement.  If an organization that is not a union - say, the BC Federation of Labour - established a political action fund supported by voluntary contributions, that's not a problem.  (I leave for another day whether we should embrace a more radical reform of political donations.)  My objection is to the fact that unions are legally authorized to compel their members to contribute financially to political causes. 

7 comments:

  1. Great post!

    My understanding of labour history is that the labour code is a result of political pressure put on governments past. The right to organize and collectively bargain, was won through political activism, not the courts. If labour is hamstrung in its ability to apply political pressure, what's to stop future governments from repealing those hard fought rights?

    Further, who better to politically organize working people than a union. I often disagree with what they advocate for, but they must provide a counter-weight to the political influence of corporations and well-off individuals. As long as money talks in politics, the middle and lower class will have no voice unless they are organized effectively.

    Finally, characterizing union political advocacy as undemocratic seems unfair, given that unions themselves are democratic, union policy being set by elected representatives.

    It's a rare union where every member agrees with what their union is advocating for, whether at the bargaining table or in the political arena. For the same reason that unanimity isn't required for a strike vote, it doesn't make sense to require it for political activism.

    Perhaps ending the tax benefits for money spent on political activism is one solution that would provide better balance than Bill M 210.

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    1. I find much to agree with in Ryan's comment, above. The changes proposed by Geoff take us down a road I'm not sure we want to travel.

      Much of life is political and much of life is lived in organizations/collectivities. If I'm a member of a sports organization that wishes to advocate for the building of sports facilities that I disagree with, what then? Should I require the establishment of separate funds: one for specific, sports-related costs, and another for political action?

      Like Ryan, I often disagreed with what my union advocated for. I learned to suck it up, become active in the politics, and accept the marginal loss of individuality that comes with organizational membership.

      My advice (tongue in cheek): never join anything.

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    2. I think the question about the extent to which you give up a measure of "individuality" whenever you decide to participate in a collective activity is important. It really goes to the heart of the social contract which sustains society - we all give up a measure of our personal freedom in return for the benefits of civilization.

      But. And here's the but. The difference between a sports organization and a union is that you can choose not to join the sports organization if you don't like their politics, but if you work at a unionized workplace, you are required by law to join the union, and pay dues, and the union is permitted to use your dues for political activity. It's the element of legal coercion that I think represents the difference between the two situations. No other organization in society has that special privilege. Nor should unions.

      There is another solution to the problem, though I'm not advocating it and I expect it would be even less popular among unions and their supporters. Make the payment of dues voluntary, as is the case in many other countries.

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  2. I have been a member of a public sector union in the past and I agree with the intent of this legislation. This issue bothered me when I belonged to the union. I always felt that if political advocacy was so important they could set up a separate "account" for this purpose and seek donations from their members. This would compell them to make their case for solicting funds for this purpose rather than simply presuming that political party "X" best represented their member's interests.

    Having said that, I also strongly believe that there should be limits on funds individuals and companies can donate to political parties. It is far too easy for the business community to donate large sums of money to political parties which are supportive of their views. Further, it creates the appearance of there being an expectation that there will be some sort of benefit to them in the future, e.g. witness all the chatter regarding which company will be the successful bidder for the LDB operations if it is privatized.

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  3. As a former member of a large public sector union (after many years in non-union private sector employment) I've had an opportunity to learn from experience.

    Few people are asked to decide whether or not to join a union. One is conscripted upon accepting employment. How about a reform that grants each job candidate the funds to hire a lawyer to study the collective agreement and advise the candidate about the advisability of proceeding? Let's write that into the Code.

    Which, by the way, was put before the Legislature in 1992 by the new Harcourt government. I've read some of the Hansard record. When the Liberals came to power, what did they do to address the issues they'd raised in that debate? Nothing! Both parties are content with the status quo.

    We need a new conception of the labour and employment law regime, starting from basic principles. There are no politicians interested in such a project.

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  4. "If labour is hamstrung in its ability to apply political pressure, what's to stop future governments from repealing those hard fought rights?"

    Absolutely nothing, see Wisconsin and other ReThuglican controlled U.S. States - and oh yeah, see Lisa "keep the planes on time" Raitt!

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  5. "That means the BCTF campaign against the BC Liberals will effectively be paid for by tax dollars. Your tax dollars. My tax dollars.
    I am not aware of any other organization in society that gets this advantage."


    I am, the Christy Clark government, remember when we taxpayers paid for the pro-HST stickman TeeVee assault on our logic? There are of course myriad other examples of government using tax-payer subsidization for essentially political advertising, like the "percenter" attack ads from the Harperites, from MPs in other ridings that clutter my mailbox attacking Dion, Iggy or who ever!

    The fact is that a union IS a political organization and if you don't agree with its positions, get involved in its politics, don't just happily accept the benefits they secure for you. For example if a BCTF member doesn't agree with the BCTF positions on public education, of course the first thing to do is voice and promote your vision within the union. Of course maybe you don't believe in public education either and would be more comfortable teaching in a non-unionized private setting!

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