Do voluntary recognition agreements put employers in the driver's seat in a labour-management relationship? Do these deals leave workers short-changed and give the employer a lever it can pull whenever it thinks the union is asking for too much? Does voluntary rec create a cozy relationship between the employer and the union that leaves the workers out in the cold?
Voluntary rec agreements, although permitted under labour relations legislation across the country, have always been the subject of controversy. Unions that engage in these deals argue that voluntary rec spares them the trouble and cost of having to organize workers, that it creates larger bargaining units (that are supposedly more powerful, although we're yet to be persuaded) and that, on an even brighter note, they are a sign of a "mature" relationship between the union and the employer - the employer turns the workers over to the union because it knows they will want to join that particular union anyway and the union graciously accepts them. Critics of voluntary rec argue that the practice is unfair to workers, that it deprives them of the right to choose who their union will be, that in some cases it deprives them of any say in what will be in their collective agreement and that it gives the employer the upper hand in bargaining - the thinking being that the union will, in exchange for recognition for a new bargaining unit, be especially reasonable in its demands. Moreover, one of the chief criticisms of voluntary rec is that it tends to allow employers to go "union shopping" - offering quick and easy recognition in exchange for quick and easy collective agreements.
What's the real story? We have unearthed a decision of the Alberta Labour Relations Board that involves a real live voluntary rec deal. This 1992 decision involved Westfair Foods, the Teamsters Union and the UFCW and sheds a great deal of light on the voluntary rec concept: How it happens, what motivates the employer and the union, the quality of collective agreements that tend to get signed off and where the workers figure in the whole process. The decision is a case study in why voluntary rec is... a wreck for workers.
It all started back in 1991 when Westfair Foods opened a Great Canadian Superstore in Lloydminister Alberta. Westfair already operated a number of Superstores in Alberta and had a voluntary recognition arrangement with UFCW Local 401. With the Lloydminister store about to open, Westfair commenced bargaining with Local 401. Prior to the commencement of negotiations, a total of three unions - including the UFCW and the Teamsters "approached" the company about a voluntary rec agreement. Whatever pitches the various unions may have made, bargaining for the Lloydminister location began in the fall of that year and things quickly went off the rails.
Unable to get the kind of deal it was looking for, the company walked away from bargaining with the UFCW and approached the Teamsters with an offer of voluntary rec in exchange for the union's acceptance of a collective agreement on the company's terms. All the union had to do was sign up a majority of the workers who were about to be hired. What if the workers didn't like what was in their new agreement? Well, there was a "gentlemen's agreement" that the parties would try to work out any problems. The deal was a five-year agreement with an automatic four-year renewal if the parties couldn't agree to a new agreement. Through this innovative bit of language, the union essentially agreed that if, at the end of the five years, negotiations for a new agreement reached an impasse, it would be stuck with the same old deal for another four years. (Now that's creative!) Whatever its shortcomings, the deal was done and signed off by the time the union met with the workers for the first time.
The Teamsters first meeting with their prospective members was held on company time at the conclusion of a company session about security. Joining a union was just another part of the paperwork associated with being hired, it would seem. The meeting, however, turned into a fiasco. The workers were not impressed with the new agreement, were not shown a copy of the new agreement and were not allowed to ratify the new agreement (although some had been told that they would get to vote on it). They were, however, asked to sign union membership cards, which the Teamsters representatives told them "meant nothing".
Upon learning of the "done deal", the UFCW mounted an organizing campaign in an attempt to gain certification. The UFCW went all out: they attacked the Teamsters on every front, criticizing the voluntary recognition concept as one that robs workers of the right to choose, slamming the Teamsters for failing to let the workers vote on the deal they inked in a backroom, calling them liars and rats and generally casting aspersions on them. Various issues ended up before the ALRB, which drove a truck through the voluntary rec deal and ordered a representation vote between the UFCW and the Teamsters. The UFCW won.
This is Good Stuff
Click here to read the ALRB decision.
The ALRB's decision is important, educational in fact, for a number of reasons:
It shows in considerable detail, the genesis of a real live voluntary rec deal, the pressure the union is under to accept whatever lousy contract the employer puts on the table and the speed with which the union takes the bait.
It shows the extent to which the workers really don't matter in the equation and the arrogance with which their new bargaining agent treats them.
It contains a good overview of the case law that has evolved in Alberta, BC and Ontario around voluntary rec agreements and the importance of the concept of "workers' choice" in the selection of a union as well as the role of unions as representatives of workers rather than of their own interests.
So give it a read and follow the action. We've highlighted some of the really good stuff (in red) - just so you don't miss it. Note how quickly the deal with the Teamsters comes together once the company goes "union shopping", the pathetic, almost comical, efforts of the union officials at getting the workers to buy-in, their arrogant disregard for the workers' concerns. The union wants them to sign membership cards because that seals the deal but they won't show them the agreement because "they wouldn't understand it" anyway. Notice how the workers respond. They know this is not a good deal for them. They are not as stupid as their union thinks they are. And notice the UFCW - the spectacular organizing campaign it mounted, its criticism of voluntary rec and sleazy backroom deals... what happened to them? Were they just riled up because someone else was on their turf or did the people behind this campaign really believe in something?
Don't lose track of that last question. We're going to find out.