A unionized carpenter in northern Ontario, working for one of the few unionized contractors around, is struggling to pay the bills while on winter layoff. He takes a short term gig for a nonunion homebuilder. A union organizer discovers this and the union fines the carpenter, telling him that he’ll be off the hiring hall list forever if they catch him working nonunion again.
A children’s aid worker attends a ratification meeting. She asks several times for the entire offer to be presented before members must hold a strike vote, but she’s told to sit down. The vote passes. Two weeks later, her membership is suspended and she is warned that such conduct in the future will get her expelled from the union.
A volunteer firefighter in central Ontario gets the job of a lifetime—a full-time firefighter position near Toronto, 180 kilometres away. After she starts, the steward at her new job discovers she’s still volunteering back home. She’s warned that if she doesn’t stop, she will lose her dream job.
These are real stories. Failure to toe the union line is a violation of the union’s constitution, and the penalties can range from suspension, to fines, to expulsion.
Why would anyone worry about expulsion or fines? Because most unions in Canada operate as a closed shop. The union has the right to insist that only members in good standing of their union can work in that workplace. If a worker is expelled from membership, the union can legally demand that person be fired. Closed shop rules are a powerful tool and most provinces provide few limits on how that tool is used. But unions use and abuse that power all the time.
Power must be balanced. Too much power in the hands of management or the union can become a tool for abuse.
This is why CLAC gives workers in CLAC-organized workplaces the choice to sign membership cards or not. Workers still must pay dues (labour laws require all workers who benefit from the union contract to share its cost). But since CLAC does not require membership as a condition of employment, CLAC cannot get a worker fired for not being a member.
This freedom to join or not represents CLAC’s commitment to worker choice. The right to choose which—if any—union to join gives workers the power to hold their union accountable. A union should earn a worker’s membership, not demand loyalty by threatening their job.
I’m a proud member of CLAC, precisely because I don’t have to be.