Monday 25 May 2015

Unions on the Hill 2: Union space and parliamentary bylaws

Right, so. Last time I discussed the prevalence of "union space" clauses in collective agreements. I also mentioned that the Liberals and Conservatives believe - or say they believe, at least - that such a clause runs afoul of Parliamentary bylaws preventing the use of caucus space for the "benefit" of a person or organization.

For reasons that follow, I think the Liberal and Conservative argument here is nonsensical. To interpret the provision as strictly as these parties suggest would disallow any number of otherwise entirely proper uses of caucus offices.

Now, again, I'm not suggesting that one can cloak otherwise illegal or improper activity under a "union space" clause. But I've seen no evidence presented that UFCW Local 232 or the federal NDP are doing anything improper with the office space granted - other than, apparently, granting it in the first place.

The Language in the Bylaw

Recall the Bylaw itself:
7(1)...a Member may not use funds, goods, services and premises provided by the House of Commons for the benefit of any person, association or organization, or for the promotion of a product, service or event of any person, association or organization.

If we take the Liberal and Conservative interpretation of the Bylaw, the Bylaw serves to prevent any union space clause being in any collective agreement on the Hill. It wouldn't just prevent a union office. It would, using this same reasoning, prevent a union bulletin board (that's using "premises" for the "benefit" of a person (the workers) or an association (the union), after all) or, for that matter, preventing union representatives from meeting with their members within the workplace at all (again - using "premises" for the "benefit" of the workers within the workplace).

For that reason alone, in my view, the Liberal/Conservative line here is absurd. The intention of the Bylaw is to prevent influence-peddling and diversion of Parliamentary resources for private benefit. UFCW 232 - that represents federal NDP office staff - has its own offices off the Hill. The Local represents staff of the federal NDP across the country - not just in the House of Commons.

But it goes further. What about, for example, occupational health and safety committees, which employers are required to maintain under the Canada Labour Code? If they meet within the offices of the party, isn't that using "premises" for the "benefit" of people working in the workplace? (Lest you think the comparison is a stretch, keep in mind the Code also imposes statutory requirements upon employers, such as requiring them to abide by collective agreements and to recognize and bargain with their employees' union of choice.)

Union representation is - or should be seen as - just as much a part of the legal landscape of working life as is occupational health and safety legislation. But the Liberals and Conservatives (neither of whom, of course, have unionized staff) seem to view a union chosen by a group of workers as somehow foreign; unwelcome; improper. And the interpretation these parties put forward regarding this parliamentary bylaw seems far too narrow and completely misses the logic and purpose of labour relations in a unionized workplace.

I mean, really, it seems to keep coming back to our old friend Ogre.

What about the Charter?

Following Mounted Police, Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, and B.C. Health Services, labour rights have finally been granted "constitutional benediction" - to borrow a phrase from Justice Abella in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour. Surely preventing a union from meeting with its members, maintaining a bulletin board, or having an office within the workplace - all of which would contravene Parliamentary bylaws, if you believe the Liberals and Conservatives here - must violate the Charter?

Well, yes, probably. While it could certainly be argued that workers can engage in "meaningful collective bargaining" without a union space clause, I think the stronger argument is that the message forbidding union space sends - telling workers that their union is not allowed to communicate with them within the workplace - is a much greater affront to labour rights than it might at first appear.

But that's not the end of it. Because we're talking about a union space clause in the House of Commons, we have to deal with the question of Parliamentary privilege - the idea that Parliaments and Legislatures can make certain decisions without fear of judicial review. So, for instance, the right of a Legislature to forbid television cameras was not subject to review by the Courts. Parliamentary privilege is not unlimited, but it extends pretty far - to anything necessary for the functioning of Parliament. Labour relations may well fall under that category - meaning that the Charter might not apply if Parliament chooses to forbid union space clauses.

This isn't a topic I feel particularly qualified to write about, so I'll just say that Parliamentary privilege might apply here. But as one constitutional scholar I canvassed noted, it's not the end of an issue just because that issue's not subject to Charter analysis. Hopefully sound labour relations policy and sensible politics will prevail in this case.

No comments:

Post a Comment