As I prepare for the upcoming Alberta PC Annual General Meeting, I contemplate what it truly means to be a Progressive Conservative in the province of Alberta. A quick look at the 2010 PCAA Constituency Resolution Book reaffirms that I belong to the right party – many policies in the booklet represent both a progressive and a conservative approach to the issues affecting our province. One such policy is Edmonton McClung’s “A” resolution regarding the Labour Relations Code.
The resolution reads: Be it resolved that, the Government of Alberta introduce amendments to the Labour Code to permit individual employees to opt out of contributing a portion of their union dues if their union dues are used to fund union activities which are unrelated to the core union activities of collective bargaining and grievance administration.
In simple terms, it’s reasonable that employees are forced to pay union dues for collective bargaining and core union activity, but should have the option to not pay into their union’s political activities. Individual employees should have the right to put their hard earned money toward the political party of their choice or not at all.
People are usually surprised when I tell them how antiquated Canada’s Labour laws are. The assumption is that Canada is on par with the rest of the industrialized world when it comes to the rules surrounding unionization. The fact is, however, that Canada is behind the United States, as well as many European countries – most of which have long histories of socialist governments.
Interestingly, research indicates that Canadians clearly support reforming how union dues are collected and used. A 2008 Nanos Research poll for the National Post and Global National on workplace issues found that only 16 per cent of working Canadians felt union dues should be used to make contributions to political parties. Similarly, only 17 per cent of respondents felt union dues should be spent on partisan political advertizing campaigns. Most respondents also felt that it would be fairer to pay lower dues to cover the costs of collective bargaining and agreement administration, but not be forced to pay for union activities relating to non-collective bargaining activities, such as supporting or opposing political parties and social causes.
Contrast this with what has happened with union dues that Canadians have been forced to pay. As an example, during the Ontario provincial election in 2003, five construction union affiliates of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario joined three other unions to form the “Working Families Coalition”. This group ran the $5 million dollar negative attack ads that helped bring down the ruling Progressive Conservative government. Shortly thereafter, construction industry employees lost their right to a secret ballot in unionization elections.
Remember the “No Plan” ads that slammed Premier Stelmach and the PC government during the 2008 election? Those were a result of monies largely collected through forced union dues by various Alberta Building Trade unions, who helped organize and fund the “Albertans for Change” group that spent more that $2 million on this advertizing. To put this in context, this was more than the three opposition parties spent on advertizing; it even included spots that ran during the Super Bowl.
It is time for legislators to bring Canadian labour laws in line with the rest of the industrialized world. What’s needed is a transparent and accountable structure that balances the rights of employees who support their union being politically active and want to contribute further to its political objectives, with the rights of employees who believe that money they are legally required to pay to a union should be limited strictly to negotiating and administering collective agreements.
To create this balance, unions should be prohibited from spending dues that are legislatively mandated for the purpose beyond what is needed to maintain a collective bargaining relationship with the employer. Funds collected for these purposes should be accounted for separately and segregated from funds that may be collected and used for other purposes.
The rights of unions and union members to voluntarily engage in political activism or support political causes and parties should also be dealt with. Most jurisdictions address this by requiring separate political action accounts from which all voluntary donations and expenditures are accounted for, reported on and audited.
The issues raised in this resolution are core to what it means to be a Progressive Conservative in the province of Alberta. It is not my belief that unions have no place in our society, nor do I believe that unions should not participate in political activities.
However, one must ask: Is it appropriate for unions to spend more on advertising than the political parties themselves during an election campaign? Is it fair that the millions they spend to support political causes are being financed by working Canadians who are required by law to pay dues?
Being a Progressive Conservative in the province of Alberta is about balance, pragmatism and common sense. The Edmonton McClung “A” resolution regarding the Labour Relations Code is about striking that balance. At the upcoming AGM, I encourage all Progressive Conservatives to participate in this policy session and to support this resolution. I will be providing the session details shortly. Stay tuned!