Following the approval of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), more than 90 per cent of the delegates from the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) approved a merger proposal between the two organizations a few days ago. Both unions are about to merge and will form the largest private sector union in Canada.
In a free society, there is absolutely no problem when two private organizations choose to merge. In fact, freedom of association guarantees their right to do so. Leadership of both unions sees in this merger a better way to fight against attacks on the labour movement. Let's wish them the best of luck in their endeavour.
Unfortunately, union members do not enjoy the same protection of their freedom of association. Unions have set that compulsory membership in various collective agreement and dues are mandatory in Canada even when unions use them for political or ideological purposes.
This has been done in spite of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that recognizes freedom of association as a basic right, but specifies that "no one may be compelled to belong to an association." A worker forced to pay union dues and to be a member of a union finds himself or herself in a difficult position, being compelled to join the new union and to support it financially.
In Canada, current laws violate the freedom of association. Compulsory union membership was brought before the Supreme Court in 2001. Interestingly, the highest Court also agreed that freedom of association includes freedom not to associate and that compulsory membership violates this basic right. But in a five against four decision, the Supreme Court deemed this violation acceptable in a free and democratic society.
The 2001 judgment still holds to this day in Canada, but since then, compulsory union membership has been revoked in all other free and democratic countries. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled in 2006 and 2007 that non-unionized employees have no obligation to join a union or, when a member, to pay union dues for purposes other than collective bargaining. The Court found that these two mechanisms violate freedom of association. Its decision is enforceable in the 47 countries composing the Council of Europe.
Also, neither in Australia nor in the United States are workers forced to join a union or pay the portion of union dues used for purposes other than collective bargaining. In the U.S., 22 of the 50 states have outlawed the mandatory payment of union dues entirely. This concept is referred to as the "right-to-work" because the laws adopted by these states guarantee an employee the right to keep his job even if he refuses to join and pay dues to the union.
Should the Supreme Court examine again these laws, their decision might not be the same with the changes made in Europe since 2001. When we look at the way things work elsewhere in the world, when we listen to workers whose rights are being violated, we must recognized that the laws on labour and unions must be revised. The very foundation of these laws lies in the fact that unions are associations. Hence, they may choose to merge or not as they see fit. But individual workers should also be able to choose to associate or not. It's a basic right that Canadian laws are still negating, a unique — and shameful — occurrence among free and democratic societies of the world.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.