Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Abusive Union Powers Checked

October 1, 1990 -

Canadian mainline unions are notoriously indifferent to the principle of freedom of association. They have firmly established the rule that workers can be forced to support or join a union as a condition of employment in many collective agreements. But they want to extend their reach even further. Not only do they want to have the power to force workers into their ranks, some construction trade unions are also determined to forbid their workers to find employment in non-union jobs. A recent B.C. case provides a revealing glimpse at this kind of unionism.

The Industrial Relations Council of British Columbia recently decided that two workers were free to work for a non-union employer. The case involved a drawn-out contest between Jim Atchison and Jim Allen, and Local 344 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). In 1988 Atchison and Allen began working for Great West Electric Company (a non-union employer) on a pulp mill construction near Fort St. John. Atchison and Allen had only been able to find sporadic work in previous years, and Local 344 had been unable to supply them with steady work.

After they began working for Great West, the IBEW started discipline proceedings against the two workers. The union charged them with failing to promote the interest of the local and thus violating their membership obligations. The two men were informed that they had to quit working for the non-union contractor immediately. Upon their refusal to do so, they were fined $2,000 each. They appealed the decision and their fine was reduced to $750, but they were still held in breach of the union's rules if they continued to work for Great West. They defended themselves by saying that the choice before them was either unemployment and welfare or making their own living by means of the job with Great West Electric. When the union persisted in its disciplinary action, the two men lodged a complaint with the B.C. Industrial Relations Council. The first time the IRC rejected their application, but in late 1989 the Council heard the complaints of the two union members, and in June of this year the IRC handed down its decision.

No Captive Members

The IBEW argued that it needed the power to enforce the rule that its members were not allowed to work for a non-union employer. The union claimed that working for a non-union contractor would give such employers an unfair advantage over unionized contractors. The two electricians argued that they were simply exercising their right as Canadian citizens, especially since the union had been unable to find full-time employment for them. They submitted:

In the case at hand, the IBEW is asserting absolute control over the employment of its members. It is saying that its members must not work for nonunion employers even if the union cannot otherwise provide work with union employers. That is not only unfair and unreasonable insofar as the individual members are concerned, it is also inconsistent with the principles and policies of the Act. The Act is designed to protect the rights and interests of employees, and, in our respectful submission, a union must administer its internal affairs in a manner which respects those rights and interests. 

After considering the arguments for both parties during a three-day hearing, the IRC handed down a 29-page decision in which it ruled that the IBEW must refrain from ordering the two electricians not to work for a non-union employer.

Thus the freedom of these two B.C. workers was upheld. But it must still seem strange that in a country where freedom is supposedly taken for granted, a union can force workers to spend a great deal of time and money simply to exercise their rights. (The cost of these proceedings, estimated at $10,000, was borne mostly by Great West.) The fact that a union was stopped from forcing its members to be unemployed should provide some comfort to those who value freedom. It's not much, but some limits to unrestrained union power is better than nothing.

The IBEW insisted that they had a right to stop their members from working because they wanted to protect the integrity and position of the union. But it's ironic that the IBEW and other like-minded unions think that they are entitled to use compulsion to the point of ordering their members to be unemployed, instead of appealing to their members on the basis of the quality of their services. All normal voluntary organizations must do the latter in a free society. The treatment given to Atchison and Allen will only serve to offend and further alienate all freedom-loving Canadian workers from unions like the IBEW. It is high time that such unions begin to do some fresh thinking and not treat their members as captives who can't be trusted to make their own decisions about where they shall work.

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This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, a journal founded by Harry Antonides. Find all of Harry’s pieces, and thousands more, at http://www.cardus.ca/comment