• authored by Hugh Finnamore
  • published Sat, May 31, 2003

Union Boss Threatens Suit if Workers Given Bill of Rights

Ontario Premier Ernie Eves says if re-elected, his Tory government will ensure that unions operate on "principles of democracy, transparency and accountability." As usual, the Ontario Federation of Labour's (OFL's) Wayne Samuelson gives a wholesale dismissal of Mr. Eves' proposed "Workers' Bill of Rights." Mr. Samuelson promises to sue if the Tories "interfere with constitutional mandates to serve [union] members and communities."

On the surface this looks like two admitted enemies fighting each other over the welfare of a common denominator-unionized people who work for a living. In reality, the Tories are proposing to kick evolution up a notch. That scares the bejabbers out of Mr. Samuelson-the official gatekeeper of Ontario labour's equivalent to Jurassic Park.

If the Tories are successful in delivering a Workers Bill of Rights, they will have forced a lethal dose of democracy on many organizations, which have developed a fatal intolerance to member participation. In doing so, the Tories will flip labour unions into a structure not seen since the "corporatization" of unions took hold in the late 1930s. The Bill of Rights will destabilize union bureaucrats as they slide to extinction.

What Mr. Eves probably doesn't see is that, by adding juice to the evolutionary process, he's not getting rid of worker activists, he is merely greasing the skids for institutions which have outlived their usefulness.

Seventy years ago, industrialists and politicians would have thought the Tories' scheme quite mad. Back then, union democracy was being replaced by union bureaucracy; an institutional structure that effectively controlled shop floor militants. The power rose from the shop floor to the union's corporate offices.

Many unions are venal bureaucracies operating with a clearly defined chain of command and iron-fisted discipline. To maintain the status quo and their rich lifestyles, the union elite demand unquestioning obedience, impenetrable secrecy and critical action by those most easily bought and controlled.

Mr. Eaves says union members should have a substantive say in how their union spends money. As well, he wants to give union members a say in how "sheltered" money is spent. His rationale is that, "Some unions shelter their spending decisions by giving money to a union council or other group that, in turn, gives the money to a cause unrelated to collective bargaining."

For example, the average union member had no say whatsoever when the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) honchos decided it was a great idea to spend $300 thousand to sponsor a stock car racer. When the members complained to the media, the UFCW tried to justify the expenditure by saying that profits from selling UFCW hats and T-shirts at racing events would go to a charity.

Mr. Samuelson tries to throw us off track by claiming that restricting union spending affects the freedom of trade unions to express themselves under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This statement shows how out of touch union bosses are with reality.

While a corporation is considered by the law to be a legal "person" capable of doing many things in a legal sense that real people can do. A corporation can enter into contracts, it can sue and be sued, and it pays taxes like the rest of us. However, labour unions are not considered legal persons. In Fortino's Supermarket Ltd. v. United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 175, arbitrator Anne Barrett recently ruled, "a union is not a legal entity that can sue in defamation." That is why a union cannot sue or be sued the same as a corporation or individual- even in cases of fraud, conspiracy or negligence.

However, the Tories have a proposal, which just might fulfil Mr. Samuelson's "Charter" fantasy. They want to allow union members to sue their unions for negligence, breaches of contract and torts. They say that unions' are currently above the law and that makes it impossible to bring civil actions against them, even in cases of fraud, conspiracy or negligence. Mr. Eves' rationale is that if a corporation or individual can be sued for doing those things, so should a union. That may give you a bit more insight as to why Mr. Samuelson and his buddies are choking on their spit.

The Bill of Rights would allow union members to approve or reject the expenditure. Some unions are notorious for holding membership votes at times and places when very few members can attend. To ensure workers get a chance to vote, unions would be required to ensure that an actual majority of the workers sanction strikes, ratify contracts or change union dues or fees and approve any expenditure, which is over and above day-today expenses.

Guaranteeing that all union members have access to critical information such as their union's constitution, collective agreement, records of expenditures and financial statements is a cornerstone of the Bill of Rights. Time and time again union leaders say such isn't necessary because that information is readily available. If that's so, what's the big fuss Mr. Samuelson?

Could the real resistance by the union fat cats be that the Bill of Rights would require:

  • Full disclosure of all gifts, monetary or otherwise, received by them;
  • Full disclosure of trusts, stabilization or other funds established by the union;
  • Information about all loans made by the union;
  • Details of union officials' total compensation, including holdings, benefits and spousal entitlements;
  • That unions would be forced to file the documents with the Ontario Labour Relations Board so they would be available to any member upon request?

And if that weren't enough to creep out even the most hardened of union strongmen, the fact that the Bill of Rights would give union members the right to dump their parent unions no doubt has many of them retching in their laps. The Tories promise that, after complaining to the Ontario Labour Relations Board, a local union's members could end or change affiliation with an international union simply by a majority voting to do so.

The death of unions really has little to do with whether the Bill of Rights sees light of day. Unions are dinosaurs, and as North American management systems evolve, so will worker activism. Technology and modern leadership methods have created an environment whereby most workers no longer relate to the industrial model of unionism or see a need to join a union.

That being said, human nature being what it is, those with power will always take advantage of those with less power, so workplace activism will live on and grow. As middle management disappears and is replaced by webbed workgroups, so will unions disappear only to be replaced by webs of workplace activists.

I applaud Mr. Eves, not necessarily for his motives, but at least for his efforts. However, we need to understand that Samuelson's OFL could have made the proposed Bill completely irrelevant by promoting transparency and accountability among its affiliated unions. They haven't. For years they've ignored the pleas of union members for these very protections and now they stand to reap the rewards of their arrogance. I truly hope that his government's Workers' Bill of Rights becomes a reality for Ontario workers and a benchmark for other jurisdictions. It's a much-needed measure to bridge the gap from today's workplace to tomorrows.

Hugh Finnamore, a former union official, is now a senior consultant at Vancouver-based Workplace Strategies Inc.
© 2003 Hugh Finnamore

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