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  • authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sun, Jan 1, 2006

Switching Unions: A Union Members Right to Choose

With over 32,000 members, the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union (MGEU) is Manitoba's largest union, representing a broad spectrum of workers in every corner of the province, from the 49th to 60th parallels, encompassing more than 1,500 job classifications and more than 200 contracts.

MGEU members work in the civil service, universities and colleges, arts organizations, health care facilities, social service agencies, the service industry, and Crown corporations including the Manitoba Lotteries Corporation (MLC).

But despite the MGEU's stature in Manitoba's public sector, members have questioned just what it has been able or willing to deliver. Workers at Manitoba Lotteries Corporation who are members of MGEU Local 151 were said to be fed up, fed right up, with their union.

Accusations of flat-out refusal to take grievances forward, half-assed efforts in cases that did go forward, poor showings at arbitration and accusations of employer collusion had members in an uproar.

Representation. That is what unions are supposed do for members. But employer-sympathetic unions across North America are letting employers run roughshod over members, allowing precedents to lapse, grievances to fall through the cracks and arbitration hearings to be screwed up by overpaid lawyers and union business agents (or union reps as they are called in some unions).

The treatment of Manitoba Lotteries employees by their employer and the MGEU not only forced the voluntary MLC MGEU executive to resign - some say out of frustration - but eventually led to the members to seek out a new union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

While the MGEU cried foul, charging that the Teamsters were "raiding", the Teamsters continued to fight for the disgruntled and frustrated Manitoba Lottery MGEU members. The MGEU vowed to fight harder to keep the members in its fold by what ever means necessary.

MGEU posted web page upon web page of propaganda in a political assassination campaign aimed at the Teamsters in the hopes of swaying, or as some see it scaring, members into voting for the same-old same-old MGEU.

The MGEU, through the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE - a labour federation with which it is affiliated), also filed a complaint with Ken Georgetti, President of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).

The charge of raiding was handled personally by Georgetti under a new protocol that allows the CLC President to intervene directly instead of using the CLC's normal process which involves the appointment of a supposedly impartial umpire whose role is to investigate the reasons for the raid and report on whether a the CLC's Constitution has been breached by the "raiding" union. Georgetti flew into Winnipeg to talk to officials of Teamsters Local 979 in an attempt to deter them from proceeding with their application for certification of the disgruntled Manitoba Lotteries MGEU members.

Various Manitoba mainstream union VIP's also weighed in on Georgetti's side and lent their support to the CLC in an effort to dissuade the MGEU members from flying the coop. A number of labour luminaries spoke out accusing the Teamsters of breaking solidarity with "the core principles" of the labour movement. Manitoba Federation of Labour President Darlene Dziewit wagged her finger sanctimoniously at MGEU members in a hypocritical letter:

I would like to set the record straight on the Teamsters and their current campaign to convince you to leave the MGEU and join their union. This is undeniably a raid and it not supported by the Manitoba Federation of Labour (MFL), or the 37 unions that we represent.

When unions affiliate with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), as both the Teamsters and the MGEU have, they agree to not raid another affiliate's members and, instead, concentrate on organizing workers who aren't members of a union.

As the central labour body representing the vast majority of unions in Manitoba, I want to say unequivocally that we stand with the MGEU when they say what the Teamsters are doing is wrong.

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Ethical unions respect the CLC protocols that are in place for union members to us if they have issues with their union. This is not the course of action the Teamsters have followed.

But never should one union begin signing another union's members up - that is the definition of a raid. An attempt to raid another union's membership inevitably weakens workers and always helps the employer.

But Dziewit's and other wits' efforts were too little and too late.

This is not the first time that Manitoba Lotteries MGEU members were disgruntled with their union.

Discontented MGEU Members Petitioned Their Own Union

On March 1, 2004, the MGEU announced that it had reached a tentative agreement with the Manitoba Lotteries Corporation (MLC), a tentative agreement that was quickly rejected in a vote on March 15, 2004.

On March 20, 2004 the Winnipeg Sun - under a headline that read "Local petitions union" - reported that a maverick group within the MGEU lotteries Local had passed a petition around their workplace criticizing the offer that members rejected on March 15th, 2004.

"This tentative agreement was unacceptable to the union membership for many reasons," said a copy of the petition obtained by The Winnipeg Sun. "The entire document contained more rollbacks and "employer-friendly concessions" than advances for the membership."

Members of the dissident group calling themselves "volunteers" of Local 151 said the agreement was rejected by a vote of nearly two to one, and called on the MGEU bargaining committee to meet with workers within two weeks to explain what happened at the bargaining table.

"Furthermore, the MGEU executive must involve the membership directly in deciding where we go from here and what is to be done now," said the "volunteers" of the Local.

MGEU President Peter Olfert tried to downplay the MGEU members' open dissent by calling their concerns moot, but the fact remains that the members found it necessary to take their dissatisfaction public.

In just over a year these very same disgruntled MGEU members are making their dissatisfaction public once again, this time they wanted to change unions to get better representation and the members sought out the Teamsters.

The MGEU denied the claim that MGEU members went shopping for a better union, instead choosing to cry that the Teamsters went looking to steal MGEU members.

Teamsters spokesman Eric Jorgensen denied the raiding charge, saying his union has been invited several times to organize the Lotteries Corporation and was merely responding to a call from workers for better service.

"They're unhappy with the service they're getting (from the MGEU)," Eric Jorgensen was quoted as saying. "It's that simple."

Jorgensen said the Lotteries workers have complained that MGEU isn't representing them effectively, partly because they feel it is too close to the NDP government led by Premier Gary Doer, who coincidently is a past president of the MGEU.

Jorgensen, confident in his statements, even invited the media to talk to some of the MGEU lottery members to let the members tell their tale and stated that he filed an unfair labour practice against the MGEU for the way it has tried to interrupt the Teamsters' membership drive.

Teamsters National President Bob Bouvier jumped into the fray blaming the MGEU for starting the conflict with a raid on its own Teamsters members, but MGEU Director Bob Dewar (an ex-NDP employee) vehemently denied the suggestion.

The Teamsters already represent about 100 Manitoba Lotteries workers in four bargaining units besides those the Teamsters are courting.

Bob Dewar, it should be noted, left the MGEU to work for Manitoba Premier Gary Doer but later asked Peter Olfert if he could come back to work for the MGEU at the same higher salary he was making working for Doer.

MGEU Conducts Media Smear Campaign Against Teamsters

The MGEU began a media smear campaign by posting literature on its web site implying the Teamsters were unethical and couldn't be trusted. The MGEU's postings were scathingly critical of the Teamsters, underscoring the hostility that quickly develops among mainstream unions when issues arise over who-owns-what.

The MGEU generated some Grade A propaganda. As all of it has since been removed from the Internet, we've reproduced some choice cuts:

You've got to hand it to the Teamsters. They've really bought into the notion that if you tell enough lies and half-truths then something might stick. This week, they rolled out another semi trailer full of misinformation. Where do they dream this stuff up?

Fact: It costs more to be a Teamster.

The Teamsters and MGEU have different dues structures, different membership numbers and different ways of doing business. Teamsters' members simply pay more than MGEU's - in many cases, hundreds of dollars a year more. This is indisputable. But they'll say anything. Now they're saying they'll lower their dues rate and provide you the same services that MGEU can. Do they think if they wish hard enough they'd change the math? MGEU is Manitoba's largest union with a membership base of well over 30,000. We do more for you than other unions because there's strength - and resources - in numbers. The Teamsters can't - and don't - offer anywhere near the same services MGEU provides but are telling you somehow more can be done with less. Isn't that the same argument management uses with you?

Fact: MGEU's Record on Grievances is Solid

We know it drives the Teamsters crazy when we use numbers. The Teamsters say MGEU doesn't follow up on grievances as aggressively as they would. Since 1999, we have filed 656 grievances. Over 90% of them have been resolved. The rest we are pursuing vigorously. Since 2000, MGEU has taken 11 cases to arbitration in Lotteries alone. The Teamsters have taken zero (0) for their MLC workers. For the rest of Manitoba Teamster units, they've only taken 2 cases to arbitration since 2000. (Source: Quicklaw database)

Fact: Joining the Teamsters would mean you'd be in the same union as your boss.

One of our members asked an interesting question this week. They thought it was something their fellow MLC members should think about. If managers go on strike, would that mean you would have to go on strike, too? The fact is you'd be part of the same union as your boss. Then they asked if the Teamsters would be in a conflict of interest. It's a question that the Teamsters should come clean on - just what kind of representation would you be getting? Your interests and those of the managers that they currently represent are often competing interests. Whose interests would suffer - yours or the managers?

Fact: MGEU battles hard for you against MLC.

The fact is the Teamsters are lying when they say MLC and MGEU are working together. We've been on strike against MLC twice and we file more grievances against them on our members' behalf than against any other management group we face. Where's the cozy relationship? And we don't represent your bosses - the Teamsters do. Who has your best interests in mind?

Fact: The Teamsters have damaged Labour unity.

The Teamsters attempted raid of MGEU's MLC employees has damaged the spirit and unity of the Labour community. Leaders of the MFL, Winnipeg Labour Council, CUPE Local 500, CUPE Manitoba, UFCW, Steelworkers, CEP, ATU, Operating Engineers, UNITE, and the Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Union have all said they will not support the Teamsters in the future because of the raid. The Teamsters promise to uphold the laws in the Constitution of the Canadian Labour Congress has been broken. Again, they lied. But the Teamsters have been on the outside of credible, honest unions for a long time - and they are again.

Rumour of the Day....

The Teamsters are trying to make you believe that MGEU has destroyed some MLC grievance files. The fact is MGEU retains all grievance information necessary to advance your case.

Teamsters Raid Update. More Tall Tales From the Teamsters

MGEU's recent leaflet about the Teamsters raid on MLC staff appears to have struck a chord. Many of you are asking tough questions and getting to the real truth about the Teamsters. We're hearing reports about members changing their minds about the Teamsters and asking for their union cards back. The Teamsters are working overtime spinning more tall tales they hope will prevent you from seeing them for what they are. Below you will find some more of our favourite Teamster tales...

Tale: The Teamsters keep telling you that if you join them it won't cost you any more than what you're paying now.

Fact: For many workers, joining the Teamsters could mean several hundreds of dollars a year out of pocket. But the Teamsters aren't telling you that. The fact is the Teamsters have a different dues structure than MGEU's, which costs its members much more. But they've said they'd lower their dues rate to MGEU's dues rate of 1.25% if you sign a card with them. Can you really trust them? They represent workers at Brinks, Securicor, UPS, and Purolator who pay a much higher rate than MGEU's. But the Teamsters are not telling their other units that they will have their dues lowered also. Ask yourself: can those workers also expect their dues to be lowered or will the Teamsters find a way to increase your dues in the near future?

Tale: The Teamsters are saying they're doing nothing wrong and that the MGEU is lying to you.

Fact: The Teamsters raid breaks the rules of the Constitution of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). The Teamsters pledged to uphold those rules and have broken their promise. The raid they are conducting is currently being investigated by the President of the CLC. A ruling is expected very shortly.

Tale: The Teamsters are saying that MGEU is working with MLC to block the Teamsters.

Fact: That's ludicrous. Lotteries workers represented by MGEU have been on strike against MLC twice (in 1990 and 1996) in the last 16 years. One of those strikes (1996) was one of the longest strikes in Manitoba history. MGEU stood side by side with you on the picket lines and fought for what was in your best interest. Millions of dollars were allocated to Lotteries workers from the MGEU Strike Fund. And remember - we file more grievances against MLC each year than against almost any other employer group we face. Those are facts. With the Teamsters, you hear "we will". At MGEU, We do! We've stood up for you in the past and we'll continue to do so proudly.

Tale: The Teamsters are telling you that MGEU is using misinformation to stop you from signing a union card with them.

Fact: Part of that statement is true, actually. We are trying to get you not to sign a union card with them because we believe we can provide better representation and resources for you than they can. But what they're talking about as misinformation are the leaflets and literature we've produced. They provide you with the truth - and as members of MLC you've been asking the right kinds of questions that will uncover what this effort by the Teamsters really is - it's a raid and it's wrong.

Ask yourself this: While MGEU has a proven track record of standing up for you and has proven time and again that it will aggressively pursue your grievances, issues, and concerns, what are you opting for with the Teamsters? Are the employees at Brinks, UPS, Securicor, and Purolator getting the kind of representation THEY deserve when the Teamsters say they'll charge you one thing while other groups are forced to pay significantly more?

The MGEU's propaganda may sound compelling on the surface, but on closer analysis it's little more that a lot of unsupported assertions about the quality of the MGEU's representation sprinkled liberally with accusations that the Teamsters are liars.

Who's telling the tales, the Teamsters or the MGEU?

Perhaps both, but the MGEU certainly is not telling its members the whole truth. According to some disenchanted members, the MGEU isn't beyond employing flexible ethics when the interests of its leaders collide with the interests of members. The MGEU's grievance and appeals committee is a case in point.

The MGEU grievance and appeals committee consists of elected members or, more accurately some say, MGEU loyalists - the most loyal supporters that Peter Olfert can find and who will do as Olfert wants.

The Committee, sources say, has become nothing more than a management-like rubber stamp to squash grievances and keep arbitration hearings from going any further. Promising representation but withholding it when it's needed most belies a lack of integrity - in our humble opinion.

According to sources, efficient and effective union representation was being squashed at the highest levels of the MGEU and its leaders were going along for the ride - except the MGEU Manitoba Lotteries executive. They began seeking better representation for all.

The Teamsters are not without their problems. Plagued by corruption for the better part of the twentieth century, the Teamsters Union was for a number of years under the watchful eye of an Independent Review Board (I.R.B.) - a US government agency that investigates and adjudicates cases of internal union corruption.

Will the former MGEU members be any better off with the Teamsters? That isn't really the issue. The important thing is that they chose the Teamsters. What happens next will be up to their new union and up to themselves as members to determine.

One positive for the MLC workers is the presence within the Teamsters Union of an active rank and file movement whose objective is to return their union to the membership. A grassroots democratic organization called Teamsters for a Democratic Union or TDU has chapters from coast to coast in the USA and Canada. TDU members are fighting for a democratic Teamsters union. No similar reform caucus exists within the MGEU.

CLC Kangaroo Court Issues A Toothless Ruling

It wasn't even a Kangaroo Court but rather a Kangaroo that issued the ruling. Georgetti didn't even bother following the CLC's internal procedures for dealing with raiding charges, choosing instead to decide the matter himself. The Canadian Labour Congress rapped the Teamsters for raiding the MGEU's membership saying possible sanctions could include expelling the Teamsters from the Canadian Labour Congress.

In a September 2, 2005 letter to Teamsters Canada President, Robert Bouvier, CLC President Ken Georgetti wrote:

Upon receipt of a letter from James Clancy, President of NUPGE on August 10, 2005, charging Teamsters with raiding under Article IV of the CLC Constitution, I have investigated and have had several discussions with the parties to date.

I have concluded that the Teamsters are in violation of Article IV, Section 4a of the CLC Constitution.

"4.a. Each affiliate respects the established collective bargaining relationship of every other affiliate. No affiliate will try to organize or represent employees who have an established bargaining relationship with another affiliate."

As well, Darlene Dziewit President of the Manitoba Federation of Labour said its 37 affiliated unions could be told to boycott casinos and video lottery terminals unless the Teamsters withdrew their application to the Manitoba Labour Board to replace the MGEU.

Despite threats of boycotts and expulsion, the Teamsters application for certification was submitted to the Manitoba Labour Relations Board on September 20th, 2005, less than three weeks after the Canadian Labour Congress ordered the Teamsters to stop raiding Lotteries workers.

Workers at the two Winnipeg casinos, the Lotteries head office and warehouse, and VLT technicians voted Oct. 2-8, 2005 at various locations through out Manitoba.

The results of the vote were not known for some time as the ballot boxes were sealed pending Labour Board hearings to resolve a number of issues associated with the vote. On November 24, 2005, the Teamsters Union announced that it had been successful and that the Manitoba Lotteries workers were now Teamster members.

No doubt there is a lot of chest-beating and axe-grinding at CLC headquarters. The departure of the MLC workers is not only a loss for the MGEU but it further underscores the wrong-headedness and hypocrisy of the CLC's "no raiding" rule which for years has been used to prevent union members from exercising their legal right to change unions. Regardless of their reasons for wanting to do so, the interests of members are always subordinated to the interests of union leaders who want desperately to hold on to their dues.

The raiding myth holds that members who want to change unions are bad. Their actions weaken the labour movement by causing dissension among unions and taking their leaders' minds off of organizing the unorganized.

The raiding reality is that "raiding" is only raiding when certain union leaders say that it is. If we define "raiding" as any situation where one union is involuntarily forfeiting its representation rights for a group of workers to another union (the definition most commonly given to union members), then the veneer of solidarity and brotherhood gets pretty thin pretty fast.

Under the CLC's raiding rules, raiding is perfectly OK as long as it doesn't involve two CLC affiliates. "Raids" by CLC affiliates on independent unions or unions affiliated with rival umbrella orgs are OK any time. Even among CLC affiliates, the rules about raiding are fairly elastic. A lot depends on what the leaders of the two unions want the CLC to do.

How a "raid" is treated depends a lot on how CLC President Georgetti wants to treat it. In the MGEU-Teamsters battle, Georgetti injected himself personally into the fray. The Teamsters ignored his ruling and his order to back off but are still CLC affiliates. Why Georgetti thought the Teamsters would give him the time of day is a bit of a mystery anyway. They've been booted from the mainstream labour palace before. Indeed, south of the border, they've left it altogether - another factor that makes the raiding myth look even more tattered.

Teamster Raid on MGEU Could Be Due To Another Dispute

On July 25, 2005 the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union split from the AFL-CIO to form their own labour umbrella group - the Change To Win Coalition, as the AFL-CIO met for its national convention in Chicago.

Also joining the Change To Win exodus were the United Farm Workers of America, UNITE-HERE, Laborer's International Union of North America, United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

Ken Georgetti could expel the Teamsters from the CLC, the Canadian version of the AFL-CIO, but that may be just what Teamsters International President Jimmy Hoffa wants. It would only make sense for the unions in the Change to Win Coalition to set up a Canadian branch made up of their Canadian affiliates. In fact, it wouldn't make sense for this not to happen. A precipitating event - like the expulsion of the Canadian Teamsters from the CLC - would be a nice segue for the Canadian UFCW, Carpenters, UNITE-HERE et al out of the CLC and into CTW-Canada.

But that possibility aside, there is nothing secret, nothing backdoor at all about what the Teamsters are trying to do in Winnipeg. It's open and blatant. If the Teamsters' motivation is solely to better represent members, they have to be commended for their efforts in fighting to allow members to have a choice.

Will the recent drive by MGEU members seeking another union force union leaders to be any more open to local members' efforts to democratize and revitalize their unions? Will mainstream union leaders ever come around to respecting the rights of unhappy and disgruntled union members to change their unions? If 60% or 70% or even some larger number of union members want to change unions, why shouldn't they be allowed to do so? Most decertifications only require 50% plus one.

It is doubtful though that politicians or union leaders will initiate any changes in the members' favour as union leaders do not want to lose control over their revenue streams.

Union leaders continue to spew propaganda that the "members are the union" but if union members choose to make another union their own, then they are harassed, bullied, or even expelled. (There's something really boneheaded about expelling members who want to leave - rather than simply allowing them to leave - but the irony seems lost on leaders who are equally boneheaded.)

The Teamsters were/are guilty of raiding according to Ken Georgetti and the Canadian Labour Congress, yet Manitoba labour legislation allowed the Teamsters to file for certification of the MGEU group. That's because union members' legal rights supersede the rules of private organizations - like the CLC. As hard as Georgetti and his crew have worked to keep that fact a secret from union members, the word is getting out there and union leaders are getting antsy.

Will the Manitoba Federation of Labour, joined at the hip to the NDP government, ask the NDP government to change the labour laws so that union members will have no right to change bargaining agents once they are certified? Watch for it. Other MGEU locals are also very discontented with their union. Will the MGEU treat the loss of 1300 members as a wake-up call or will it react with proprietary zeal demanding greater protection of its property rights?

Unions and their locals need to wake up when the workers they represent decertify, even more so when they vote to change unions. Avoiding such actions by members shouldn't be a big deal for them. Just provide really good representation and you won't have anything to worry about. Represent members properly and the right to choose unions surely will be a moot issue.

In a democratic society there's nothing about an organization that should afford it a status so special that a relationship with it can't be severed. You can change your employer, your church, your address, your lawyer, your school, your insurance agent; you can even get a divorce from your partner more easily than union members can divorce their unions. That isn't right - particularly when the law allows such changes. Labour legislation in Canadian jurisdictions regulates exactly when workers can change unions and protects their right to do so. Interference with the legal rights of people - all people - in a democratic society is reprehensible.

The Canadian Labour Congress constitution forbids other unions from organizing or representing employees who have an established bargaining relationship with an affiliate union of the Canadian Labour Congress. The effect of this is that union members are unable to exercise their legal rights to change unions because few other unions can accept them into membership without risking censure by the CLC.

In imposing these rules, the CLC is acting much like the anti-abortion protestors who interfere with women who are trying to exercise their right to reproductive freedom. Both are motivated by the same thing: A sense of moral authority that enables them to rationalize their interference with the legal rights of others.

Let Labour be Free to Choose, an editorial originally published by the Winnipeg Free Press on January 19th, 2003 presents an argument in favour of union members' right to choose.

The following excerpt summarizes the article:

Though union leaders hate raiding, the possibility of switching unions is one of the few ways in which union members can call a lazy or self-serving union to order and make it listen to the working people it represents.... With more freedom to switch, unions might have to listen more attentively to their members... Mr. Doer should encourage competition among unions to promote improved service.

Ken Georgetti, Darlene Dziewit, and Gary Doer, you all should let members be free to make choices.

Manitoba Lotteries Corporation workers did in fact make a choice and voted 70 per cent in favour of switching their union representation. The vote and the count were conducted by the Manitoba Labour Board. It doesn't get more democratic than that.

A Teamsters spokesman said about 1300 workers chose the Teamsters Local 979 over the incumbent Manitoba Government Employees' Union despite rumoured harassment by MGEU staffers that included telling immigrant workers that they could be deported if they voted for the Teamsters.

MFL president Darlene Dziewit told CNews that the Teamsters should not have capitalized on any unhappiness expressed by members belonging to MGEU.

But changing unions is not about unions capitalizing. It's about workers choosing. In a democracy, the right to choose comes before the temptation to grab.

© 2017 Members for Democracy