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Changing Unions

The Straight Goods on Mainstream Labour's Biggest Taboo

Hang on to your seats reformers because we're going to discuss a subject that's just oh so...off limits. Changing unions seems to be the ultimate taboo discussion topic for union members. The mere mention of the subject sets mainstream labour honchos and their supporters screaming about disloyalty. Reformers who dare go there are accused of weakening the movement and causing internal dissention. Disaffected union members, who dare discuss the possibility of voting with their feet, are chastised for not trying hard enough to sort out their internal problems. Well, we say it's time we got over it people. It seems to us that in a free and democratic society where restrictions on our liberties are to be kept to a minimum, the right to say "adios" to a bargaining agent that isn't cutting it should be respected and union members should be allowed to make informed choices. This means having access to information.

The fact is that union members have the right to boot out one union and bring in another. That right exists in the laws governing labour relations from one end of our country to the other. Union members can and do change unions. The problem is that the leaders of the mainstream labour movement and its unions don't like it when this happens and so they try to discourage it by agreeing to "no raiding" rules among themselves and by making members feel guilty - like they're letting the "team" down - about contemplating such a thing.

Considering that in our free and democratic society restrictions on liberties are supposed to be kept to a minimum, individuals are free to get out of all kinds of oppressive circumstances (you can get out of a bad marriage, you can leave an unhealthy home environment, you can get out of debt, heck, you can even get out of jail); it seems quite incomprehensible that you can't or shouldn't say "so long" to a bargaining agent that you no longer have any confidence in and replace it with a union of your choice. It's really pretty sad that, although labour relations legislation right across the country gives workers the right to join a union of their choice, some unions and their umbrella orgs insist on treating members like property.

So that said, we think it's time to clear the air about the process involved in changing unions. We should point out that we are not advocating that you should rush right off and do this. Changing unions is a big step and should be thought through carefully. If, however, you decide that this is what you want to do, then you should understand that it is possible and know basically how the process works. Please note that we are not advocating that you join any particular union, nor are we advocating that you simply decertify your union and have no representation at all. All things considered, in all but the most extraordinary cases, you are probably better off with a union than without one. It should, however, be one that is doing a good job for you and that puts its members interests (rather than those of its officials or of your employer) first. This then, in a very general sense, is the process as we understand it. Specific requirements vary among the provinces, so your first step in learning more about how to change unions is to contact the Labour Relations Board (LRB) in your province and ask a lot of questions (we've included a few later on in this article).

The Process

The legal side of changing unions is quite simple. Each labour relations act or code in Canada allows union members in a bargaining unit (the group of workers covered by a collective agreement) to change unions during a specific period of time. This period of time is frequently referred to as the "open period". The open period is a window during the term of a collective agreement when another union can apply for certification for the group of workers covered by that collective agreement. You do not have to justify your decision to want to change unions to the LRB. All that the LRB is concerned with is that the application for certification of the union you want to join is made during the appropriate period and that the LRB's processes and regulations are complied with.

The timing of the open period varies from province to province. Normally it is a period of several weeks or months some time during the term of your collective agreement. In certain provinces there are additional "open period" windows during a strike or lock out, where a collective agreement has expired, or where the union got recognition through a voluntary recognition agreement with the employer. Again, contact your LRB to get specific information.

In order to become certified, the new union (to keep things simple we're going to refer to the union you want to get in as the "new union" and the union you want to get rid of as the "current union") needs to file an application for certification (sometimes called a "displacement application") with the LRB in your province. In order to be successful, the new union will need to show the LRB that it has a certain minimum level of support from the workers in the bargaining unit. (Keep in mind that the application has to be for the entire bargaining unit - not just a part of it.) The new union submits proof that it has this level of support by filing membership cards signed by the workers (just as it would if it was applying for certification in a non-union workplace). The minimum level of support varies from province to province (in Ontario, for example, it's 40%) so, again, ask your LRB for the applicable minimum in your province. When the new union makes its application for certification, the current union is notified of this development and will file a document with the LRB indicating that it holds bargaining rights and wishes to dispute the new union's application. The Employer will also be notified since it is an interested party to the proceedings. It is possible for the current union and/or the employer to object to the new union's application on various grounds - the LRB can tell you more about what typically happens in your neck of the woods and can also tell you whether or not objections area dealt with prior to or after a representation vote.

If the new union can satisfy the LRB that it has the minimum level of support required by law, a representation vote is ordered between the two unions. This is an LRB-supervised secret ballot vote where everyone in the bargaining unit gets to cast their vote for which of the two unions they want to be their representative. The majority of ballots cast decides the question.

If the new union is successful, the certificate of the current union is revoked and a certificate is issued to the new union. If the current union is successful, the application for certification is dismissed and life goes on. In some provinces, however, there may be a specified period of time that will have to pass before another application for certification can be made.

The "Raiding" Thing

One of the things you've probably heard a lot about is that unions aren't supposed to sign up members where another union is already certified. This is often referred to as "raiding". It's true that umbrella labour organizations like the CLC have a rule that prohibits "raiding" but here are a few things that you need to understand about this:

The CLC's is not a government agency and its "no raiding" rule is not the law. The law gives workers the right to change unions at certain points in time. Neither the CLC nor any other group of people can take that right away.

The law gives you the right to change unions. Generally speaking, if the law gives you a right to do something, it also protects you from reprisals for exercising that right. Your right to change unions, without reprisals from your union or your employer, is quite likely protected under your provincial labour relations legislation. This means that neither your union nor your employer can punish you for exercising your right to change unions. Ask your LRB about what protection you have specifically.

The "no raiding" rule is not without its exceptions. The CLC's no raiding rule prohibits raiding among unions that are CLC affiliates (this link takes you to a list of unions that belong to the CLC http://www.clc-ctc.ca/about/affiliates.html). If a union that belongs to the CLC wants to organize a union that doesn't belong to the CLC (sometimes called "independents"), that's OK - it's not officially raiding. Although, mainstream labour people tend to characterize "independent" unions as weak or management-friendly, the fact is that many independents are anything but that (many teachers unions, nurses unions, police and firefighters associations are independents - some of these are more militant than the CLC affiliates). In fact, if a CLC affiliate, wants to "raid" a union that belongs to some other labour umbrella groups (like the FTQ, for instance), that's not officially raiding either. We're not advocating that you run off and join an independent or any other union for that matter (unless that's what you choose to do), we're just trying to make the point that this "raiding hurts all unions" stuff only goes so far (to protect unions that belong to the same club), it's not carved in a rock anywhere.

Despite the fact that the "no raiding" rule exists for CLC affiliates; the CLC itself provides a process for members of those unions who want to change unions (from one CLC affiliate to another). This is referred to as "justification". There are differing opinions on how well the process works but it does exist and workers have used it. This excerpt from the CLC web site tells us a little about the justification process:

The rules and procedures under which union members can change unions: In the CLC Constitution's vocabulary, it is called justification. Since 1992, there have been 20 applications for justification; nine were granted and most of the other 11 were resolved.

These applications are reviewed by an independent ombudsperson and a recommendation is made to the CLC Executive Committee. After justification is granted, the CLC conducts votes among the members to choose from a number of unions, not just a single union. The process is open, democratic and fair, and ensures that all members have an opportunity to choose the most appropriate union.

If you're interested in further information about the justification process and what you and your fellow members would need to do to use it successfully, contact the CLC. Don't expect a warm reception since our sense is that they would rather you didn't use it. Be persistent though, they offer this process and you, as a member whose dues fund this organization, are entitled to have your questions answered.

The bottom line on the Click's no raiding rule is that it exists to keep order at the club. Leaders of unions that are CLC members don't want the political problems that come with members of one union wanting to join another. The rule is there to keep things nice and orderly. And here's an insider tip for you on the subject of raiding: As much as all the CLC affiliates swear to uphold the rules and not raid each other's "turf", it still happens that on occasion they do. Last year's CAW-SEIU "matter" is a good example of that. CAW President Buzz Hargrove broke ranks and organized thousands of disaffected SEIU members. The CLC booted him out but now he's back in and still winning all kinds of representation votes at bargaining units represented by the SEIU. There are other examples of CLC affiliates that have been involved in activities that look an awful lot like "raiding" and 70;they didn't even get booted out. So, at the end of the day, rule or no rule, unions have a hard time saying "no" to potential members, and will on occasion chuck the rulebook.

First Steps & Considerations

If you're considering changing unions, here are a few things you may want to do:

1. Contact your provincial Labour Relations Board. They will be able to tell you what the law says about changing unions in your province. Ask about:

What is/are the time frame(s) during which a change in unions can occur?

What protection do members have under the law for participating in an attempt to change unions?

What is the percentage of support that a new union will need to show in order to file its application for certification and get a vote?

Will a representation vote be held between the two unions only? Does the employer have a right to have "no union" put on the ballot?

Under what grounds can your current union or your employer object to the new union's application? Are these objections dealt with before or after the vote?

If the new union is unsuccessful in its attempt to get certified, how long will you have to wait before you can try again?

2. Talk to your fellow members about the possibility of changing unions and get their views. Tell them what you already know: that it's possible and what will need to be done to make it happen. Organize meetings, discussion groups, listservs; whatever means of communicating will work best. Keep in mind that you're going to need a certain level of support for what you're doing. The more people you can involve the better. On the other hand, if the majority are not interested - the democratic principle says you should respect their choice.

3. Decide which union(s) you are interested in joining. Get information about them. You can get a fair amount of information on the web, but some direct contact will likely need to happen. It's a big step but one that someone will need to take sooner or later. Possibly, you could test the waters anonymously at first to see if anyone is willing to talk to you and to get an assurance that your confidentiality will be respected. Committed activists should, however, have the courage of their convictions, so you'll need to stand up and be counted sooner or later. Keep in mind, though, if you have a large list of names and phone numbers of your co-workers, the union you contact may be willing to use the list to test the waters to see if there is an interest.

4. Do you tell your current union what you're doing? That's really up to you. However, if your union and the employer are particularly cozy, be careful in sharing information with either one of them. The law doesn't require that you give either of them any kind of notice. On the other hand, letting them know up front, may have certain advantages. If they try to penalize you for what you're doing, it will be more difficult for them to plead ignorance ("We didn't know s/he was behind it!") later on. It may be that you've already made known your dissatisfaction with your current union - maybe even tried to engage them in discussion about your concerns and those of your fellow members. There's no law that says you must do this, although, in fairness, it's worth trying (you are not required, however, to wait forever for your concerns to be addressed). If you've gone this route, though, your next move probably won't come as a big surprise to your union. Lastly, whatever the outcome of your attempts to get a new union, sometimes the possibility that members may be looking elsewhere for representation, can be enough to get your union and its reps to pull up their socks. At the end of the day, it's up to you if, when and how much you tell your current union. Their long-term track record will give you guidance about whether to give them another chance. Are they sincere, or are they just scrambling for the moment in an effort to put down an insurrection?

5. If you think the CLC "no raiding" rule is going to be a problem, contact the CLC and get information about its "justification" process. How does it work? What would the members and/or the union you want to join have to do to meet the justification requirements? Who presides over the justification proceedings? What kinds of outcomes are possible? What kinds of outcomes have other groups of workers achieved? What does the CLC do to protect the rights of disaffected union members (like you) who want to use justification as an argument to change unions?

6. Once you have a union that is committed to going ahead with an organizing drive for your bargaining unit, the union itself will do a lot of the ground work required to get a campaign under way, get card signing happening and get the necessary paperwork to the LRB. The union of your choice will work with you to make it happen, but they can't make it happen without help from you and the people you work with. Be prepared to do some work.

7. One last thing: It is really, really important that you do not involve any member of management in your activities or your plans. The LRB can dismiss an application for certifications on the basis of management involvement so don't let this happen. If managers, supervisors or corporate office staff ask you what's going on, it's fair to tell them that you're "examining your representation options" or "exercising your right to choose a union" but don't go into details. Also, politely decline any offers of help from management. The employer is supposed to stay completely neutral in these situations but let's face it, when it comes to unions, employers have been known to have their preferences. It's a fact that in some cases, your management is extremely happy with your current union. They don't want a union that will vigorously represent your interests. If your union and your company are particularly cozy, don't share any information with your employer. Tell curious or helpful managers that the LRB will let them know how it all ends up.

In general, play by the same rules that apply in any organizing/certification drive as far as communicating with your fellow members and raising support is concerned. Find out from the LRB and from the union of your choice how far you can go in terms of engaging in organizing activity in the workplace.

Good luck. Tell us what you're up to.

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