Wednesday 7 October 2015

The (Non-)Right of Employers to be Non-Union

 [This post sat in the Drafts folder for a good long while - this blog has been much-neglected - but I hope to get it back up and running.]

The issue of an employer's right to remain non-union has been in the news recently. In Nova Scotia, Egg Studios (in the midst of a bitter labour dispute with IATSE Local 849) stated in an opinion piece that:

We have the protected right, under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to remain union-free. However, interpretive laws designed by overzealous labour experts make it difficult to enjoy that freedom. We are hamstrung by our own success, vilified by those who whisper angelic phrases at night, and steal our businesses in the day.
I've got no horse in the race as to whether Egg Studios is union or not, but I'm not clear on what Charter right Egg Studios bases this claim. Freedom of conscience...maybe? It's not freedom of association; bargaining with someone isn't "associating" with them, unless you define "association" so broadly that it becomes meaningless.

Certainly not a Charter right to property. We (unlike the Americans) don't have constitutional protection of property rights, though property rights do have a quasi-constitutional status under Canadian law and do have explicit protection under a variety of provincial legislation. (As an aside, did you know that Alberta has a property rights advocate? I sure didn't.)

But even if we did, those rights aren't being affected - at least not directly - by the requirement to bargain collectively.

In Ontario, furniture manufacturer Gingrich Woodcraft shut down operations after its workers voted to unionize.  Why? Because, said the company, its owners are Christians and their religion teaches them not to engage in collective bargaining.

...Well, that's not quite how they phrased it. Specifically, the company said (from the CBC article, above):

"We are required by scripture to 'live peaceably with all men,' and not to use force to gain what we want or for what is required to succeed."
 Why that means they can't bargain with a union, well, I don't know. I suppose this means that they're opposed to strikes and lockouts, but...have they never fired an employee? Have they never had to negotiate a contract with an employee? Have they never had to renegotiate a contract when a valuable employee demanded a raise? It's not like the common law, individual, contract of employment is free of conflict. But in most cases, it does give the employer significantly more bargaining power than the employee.

Why is this an issue? Well, most labour relations statutes make it an unfair labour practice for an employer to interfere with selection of a union. The Saskatchewan Employment Act, for instance, sets out as follows, among other possibly relevant provisions:

6‑62(1) It is an unfair labour practice for an employer, or any person acting on behalf of the employer, to do any of the following:
 (a) subject to subsection (2), to interfere with, restrain, intimidate, threaten,
or coerce an employee in the exercise of any right conferred by this Part;...

 (g) to discriminate with respect to hiring or tenure of employment or any term or condition of employment or to use coercion or intimidation of any kind,including termination or suspension or threat of termination or suspension of an employee, with a view to encouraging or discouraging membership in or activity in or for or selection of a labour organization or participation of any kind in a proceeding pursuant to this Part;...

(i) to interfere in the selection of a union;

(k) to threaten to shut down or move a plant, business or enterprise or any part of a plant, business or enterprise in the course of a labour-management dispute;

(n) before a first collective agreement is entered into or after the expiry of the term of a collective agreement, to unilaterally change rates of pay, hours of work or other conditions of employment of employees in a bargaining unit without engaging in collective bargaining respecting the change with the union representing the employees in the bargaining unit;
Note that (k) is about threats to close or move an operation - not the actual closure itself. Of course an employer can shut down or move its operations if it so chooses; but if it does so to avoid unionization - which Gingrich clearly has done - then that's a problem.

But beyond that, it's pretty clear that firing someone for union activity - which is what Gingrich Woodcraft has done to its employees - is clearly meant to interfere with the workers' exercise of their rights (i.e. their right to form a union).

Even the Globe & Mail, hardly a bastion of labour activism, weighed in suggesting that Gingrich Woodcraft "doesn't have a prayer". And the G&M's probably right - the Ontario Labour Relations Board has previously held that an employer has no right to remain non-unionized, as an employer is obviously not required to join the union: Labourers’ International Union of North America, Local 1059 v. Roger Good, 2010 CanLII 47146 (ON LRB).

Still, why wouldn't an employer have a right to remain non-union? Well, the practical reason is pretty obvious: a lot of employers, faced with unionization, would no doubt find a deeply-held (perhaps previously unknown) conscientious belief that unions are somehow morally wrong - the number of born-again Objectivists would no doubt skyrocket. But on a more principled level, the right to unionize is a worker's right; the default under our system is a non-union workplace, so workers have a right to change that under trade union legislation (and now, following Mounted Police Association, under the Charter too, it seems). Employers may not be enthusiastic about negotiating with a union, but a right to remain non-union (putting aside the various techniques employers can use to defeat organizing drives) undermines the entire system.

And it's difficult to see how being obliged to negotiate with a collective bargaining agent instead of individual employees offends a Charter, or indeed any, right. "I don't want to pay my employees more" or "I don't want my employees to have a say in their working conditions" are hardly cries that will inspire people to man the barricades. Though they will perhaps inspire people to look for convenient legal excuses or justifications to avoid unionization.