Canada’s new super-union expands its membership to include everyone — even people without a job

Posted on in Debates – News/Canada –
15/12/13.   Ashley Renders

Canada’s newest union has expanded its membership to include everyone.

Unifor — Canada’s largest private sector union, which formed on Labour Day from the existing CAW and CEP — has opened its doors to part-time workers, the self-employed, those without a job and even political activists by asking people to organize “community chapters” around a common cause, rather than an employer.

Roxanne Dubois, community chapters co-ordinator at Unifor, said the union expects groups to organize around broader community issues, because members are also citizens who can “change the world around [them].”

With declines in industrial employment across the country, expanding the membership base is a life-or-death matter for unions. But for those who already question union spending habits, this program is distracting at best, and maybe even illegal.

John Mortimer, president of the Canadian LabourWatch Association, which says it aims to help employees make informed choices about unionization, says there is a hard line between bargaining and non-bargaining activity, and that any money spent on the latter is technically unlawful. While the community chapters are self-funded, Unifor is developing the program, which involves spending money on services such as collecting dues and administering a benefits package.

Mr. Mortimer points to the Income Tax Act, which says dues should not be levied for “any purpose not directly related to the ordinary operating expenses of the … union.” It is an issue addressed by Bill C-377, a Conservative proposal that would, among other things, force unions to publicly disclose details of their spending, and which suffered a setback in the Senate in June.

The community chapters program, which is in its third month of operation, is no more lawful than the other non-bargaining activities unions engage in, Mr. Mortimer said.

He said Unifor, which represents over 300,000 workers across Canada, should spend less time “on things that aren’t relevant” and more time fulfilling its mandate: “Figuring out how to make work better for employers and employees.”

Catherine Swift, chair of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and a longtime critic of unions, said the program “ultimately helps the unions themselves — it’s not collective bargaining.” But, she said the community chapters program is “less problematic” than using union dues to fund “violent student riots in Montreal,’’ as happened during Quebec’s student marches last year.

There are currently two operational national chapters and “a number of other groups” that are in the process of forming community chapters. One of these is an injured workers group in Thunder Bay, Ont., that is hoping to receive help from the local union in seeking compensation for their injuries, said Ms. Dubois.

Under the program, chapters are paired with an existing local union that will provide resources, advocacy and training. If the group has a national scope and members in more than one province, it is recognized as a national chapter, said Ms. Dubois.

Members of community chapters choose to “pool their resources by paying a membership fee,” similar to many other groups in Canada, Ms. Dubois added by e-mail. The money collected is not the same as that collected from full due-paying members covered by collective agreements, she said.

Jim Hillyer, Conservative MP for Lethbridge, and Lavar Payne, Conservative MP for Medicine Hat, both said they support Bill C-377 because they take issue with mandatory union membership and want greater transparency for full due-paying members. But, neither of them saw a problem with people choosing to organize and pay membership fees voluntarily.

The Canadian Freelance Union (CFU), which represents about 250 self-employed communications workers, transitioned from being a local under the CEP union to Unifor’s first national chapter.

As a group of freelancers among full-time employees, “we’re used to being an odd duck … we’re perhaps a slightly odder duck in the bigger Unifor world,” said Michael O’Reilly, president of the CFU. But, he said, the labour movement has to represent “people like us” because “this is the future of labour in this country.”

The CFU currently collects its own monthly dues, but Unifor has committed to providing that service in the new year, as well as developing a new benefits plan for the CFU and other community chapters, said Mr. O’Reilly.

In the process of discussing how to build a strong union that could address the needs of today’s workers, Unifor leaders recognized that “the nature of work has changed in Canada,” said Ms. Dubois. The rise of precarious work means that many people are not in a position to find full-time jobs “that they will keep for the rest of their lives,” she said.

“What a union calls a precarious job, is a job that meets many people’s needs,” said Mr. Mortimer.

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This entry was posted on Monday, December 16th, 2013 at 10:00 am and is filed under Debates. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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