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Compulsory Union Dues: Fact and Fiction

Did you catch the editorial comment by John Mortimer in the National Post over the Labour Day weekend?  Mortimer is the head of a business lobby group dedicated to abolishing collective bargaining, the Canadian Labour Watch Association.  He argues that Canadian unions infringe employee Charter rights by requiring employees covered by collective agreements to pay union dues, and occassionally by requiring them to become members of the union.  What is this guy talking about?

The difficulty for people who want to argue against collective bargaining and in favour of laws that prohibit it is that (1) the right to collective bargaining is considered a fundamental human right in international law, equal to, say, the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of race or skin colour, or tortured, and (2) they cannot actually prove their personal bias that unions are harmful to the economy.   In fact, most studies are either inconclusive about the effects of unionization on productivity and efficiency or suggest a slight positive effect.  Nor does the evidence support the argument of some opponents of collective bargaining that the improvements in labour conditions under collective bargaining cause an overall decrease in employment in society.  (See for example this summary of the arguments by Professor Davidov). This makes it difficult to present an economic argument against collective bargaining, and virtually impossible to make a ‘justice’ or human rights argument against it.

Therefore, politicians and business lobbyists (like Mortimer) who really would just prefer employers to be able to do whatever they like often tend to play loose with the facts in an attempt to build arguments against collective bargaining.   So, for example, take his argument about ‘mandatory union dues’.  What he wants is for unions to have difficulty collecting dues so that they will be weakened and unable to provide effective services.  He hopes this would therefore lead to their enfeeblement, and ultimately, the dissappearance of unions and collective bargaining altogether.  But he can’t state his argument is terms so blunt, so he has to come up with a more ‘reasoned’ argument.  So, he latches onto the idea of ‘democracy’ and human rights.

Obviously, if unions are to effectively represent the interests of the employees, they need to employ professional, smart people, including professional bargainers, lawyers, economists, pension experts, organizers, etc.  They need offices, computers, fax machines, paper.  These things cost money, lots of money, as any business person knows.  However, opponents of collective bargaining often argue that unions are somehow corrupt because they ask the people who benefit from the union’s services–the employees covered by collective agreements–to contribute to these costs.  If the union bargains me a wage increase, a better pension, and provides me with legal representation if I run into troubles with my employer, why shouldn’t I have to pay something for that service? But Mortimer argues that this idea is repulsive because it is undemocratic.

How so?  He uses the example of a requirement in a CAW collective agreement for employees to pay dues in exchange for the services provided  by the union and suggests that this is not only undemocratic but (even stranger) violates the Charter.  That is pure fiction.  Consider a typical collective bargaining arrangement in Ontario.  A requirement to pay union dues and to join a union in a collective agreement is a bargained term.  It is not imposed by the state; it is bargained by the CAW.  So the Charter doesn’t even apply (since it only applies to government action).   And, like any term in a collective agreement, it is there because a majority of the bargaining unit employees have voted for it. A union can’t include anything in a collective agreement that a majority of the effected employees won’t agree to in a ratification vote (see s. 44 of the OLRA)  In other words, if most employees do not want a mandatory dues or membership clause in the collective agreement, they can simply vote it down in the mandatory ratification vote.

This is one the problems with pundits like Mortimer.  They have an odd understanding of the meaning of democracy.  They complain that unions are undemocratic, but in the same breath, they claim that any system in which every single individual does not get their own way is undemocratic.  Their alleged beef with union dues is that there may be some employees who would rather not pay for the union’s services–they’d like them for free.  I’m sure that’s true.

And I know lots of people who would like free education, free health care, and free public transit without paying for them through taxes.  But do we argue that our political system is undemocratic because it imposes a requirement to pay taxes on citizens who didn’t vote for the ruling party?  If I vote Liberal, and the Conservatives win the election, is it ‘undemocratic’ that I must accept whatever laws the Conservatives introduce?  Clearly the answer is no–a core element of democracy is that some important decisions are made by the majority.  So why does Mortimer think it is undemocratic for employees who vote against paying their share for the union’s services to be required to pay dues when a majority of their co-workers have decided this is a fair and reasonable solution?

It’s pretty difficult to argue against collective bargaining on the basis that it is undemocratic.  Given that the alternative–the individual employment contract–usually involves the employer unilaterally imposing contract terms, on a ‘democracy’ measure, collective bargaining would have to prevail.  Do you disagree?

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One Response to Compulsory Union Dues: Fact and Fiction

  1. Brad Reply

    September 15, 2008 at 11:56 am

    The collection of union dues is in tune with the democratic nature of collective bargaining. While Mortimer may consider it an imposed membership fee, it is really a method to fairly share the costs associated with bargaining units.

    I’ve heard more than a handful of disgruntled workers say that they would like to withdraw payment of dues, but they could no more withdraw payment of taxes to a government that they disagree with. They can chose to work or live elsewhere. In both democracies, they are not forced to stay where they are. Disagree with your Mayor? Work to elect someone else or move to another city. Disagree with management or union leadership? Take your skills elsewhere, or show up at the next union elections and at least vote. No one said freedom was easy.

    The reality is that union dues are generally spent pretty democratically. A union member is likely more “connected” to how their dues are spent than the average taxpayer. Dues are used both to support the work of professional union staffers and to reimburse expenses for local union volunteers, the hardy few that invariably do the brunt of the work in workplace collective bargaining, health and safety, joint job evaluation, etc. The work of national unions is directed by the whole, through elected senior officers and regional and national conventions.

    If Mortimer had ever been on the “shop floor”, he’d know that.

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