• authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Aug 3, 2002

Invisible men: Union corruption in Canada

corruption: impairment of integrity, virtue or moral principle; depravity, decomposition or decay; inducement to wrong by bribery or other unlawful or improper means; a departure from what is pure or correct; an agency or influence that corrupts.

As we proceed with our exposure of union corruption in Canada, it's fair to say that no matter whom you are or what your views on organized labour, you will have a strong reaction to the stories you are going to read. If your are like a lot of people who consider themselves pro-labour, your reaction may be one of disbelief. How can such things happen? How did the unions you've read about come to be controlled by such opportunistic men? Why didn't the members do something about it? Where was the long arm of the law? Where was the media? If it seems as though these events took place in a lawless frontier, that's because in a very real way, they did.

In Canada, we have a lot of trouble accepting that corruption happens. We have a lot of trouble accepting that institutions with which we have strong ties can be corrupt. We assume that corruption means criminal activity and that there are laws to prevent it and law enforcement to catch the bad guys when it does. We assume that if corruption happened, we'd be reading about it in the newspapers and hearing about it on the news. We don't, so we assume that it doesn't exist.

A while ago some MFD'ers-in-the-making had an on-line discussion about corruption and why Canadians have such a hard time believing that it exists:

It doesn't exist:

Canadians have a lot of trouble with the concept of corruption. We don't think that it happens in our country - despite periodic evidence to the contrary. It's not something that's supposed to go on here. It's an American thing. As far as we are concerned - those of us who even bother to think about it - union corruption in Canada came in and went out with Hal Banks. Banks was an American ex-convict who, as the head of the Canadian branch of the Seafarers' International Union, led a bloody campaign against union democrats in the 1950's and 60's.

We're taught that it doesn't exist:

Our academic institutions teach that there is no corruption within Canadian Unions. Learned scholars tell us that Duty to Fair Representation legislation (about which they know very little) is the main reason for this. Here's something from a university textbook about Canadian labour relations:

One reason why labour leaders of Hal Banks type have been rare in Canada may be most Canadian jurisdictions' duty of fair representation provisions - something that does not exist in American legislation. The possibility of an aggrieved member taking the union before the labour board very likely acts as a brake on seriously undemocratic union conduct. In contract, under a system where a members' only recourse is a cumbersome internal review procedure, followed by the courts, leaders might be more willing to engage in undemocratic behavior, knowing there is little likelihood they will be called to account. Canadian Industrial Relations, Jon Peirce, 2000, pg. 182)

Here's what Duty to Fair Representation is all about in Canada:

We don't know what it is

Corruption is not well defined or well understood. When we think of corruption we tend to think of shady characters exchanging paper bags full of money. But corruption is not just about that. Corruption can be anything where what should be differs from what is. When people who are supposed to be serving others, serve themselves instead - that's corruption. When an organization that is supposed to be advancing the interests of workers begins to sell out those rights, that's corruption. People, who hurt us when their job is to help us, are corrupt. When a people-centered organization becomes a business enterprise, that's a form of corruption. But that's not how we think about corruption. We keep looking for the shady guys doing deals in back alleys.

The corruption we encounter in many organizations involves people who don't look or act shady. Priests, city councilors, police officers, elected politicians, and government bureaucrats - all look like normal people, good people. The things they do look normal too - like normal business dealings or rewards for hard work. They don't look like crooks to us - we have been taught that crooks look and act a certain way. Anyone who doesn't fit the bill can't be bad.

Wrong is only relative to right

Corruption is a relative thing: It exists relative to our beliefs about what's right and what's wrong. If you look at the definition of corruption (above), you'll notice that it is defined in relation to something good - corruption is the disintegration or impairment of that something good. Without the something good, corruption doesn't really exist. If the something good is poorly defined or misunderstood, we will have a hard time understanding when it has become corrupt. We might not even notice or comprehend that it has become corrupt.

We don't know what's right

Unions, despite their long history, are not well understood in our society. Ask a dozen people what unions are all about and you'll get a dozen different answers. The majority of working people does not belong to unions and, at the rate that things are going, probably will never belong to unions. Unions themselves do not understand what they are all about. Within many union organizations, there are competing philosophies and values. Within the business union organizations, the values of business are dominant - there are no real union values to speak of. Complicating the problem is the fact that unions do not communicate well with the public. So there is nothing good against which something can be understood to be bad.

We feel powerless

So why don't you do something? The answer is that you feel powerless to change it. What can you do to stop it? You're more likely than not to get a shit kicking trying to stop it. Call the cops and they'll just laugh at you.

We think they're democratic

They think that unions are democratic entities that would put the run on anyone who perpetrated a fraud or crime against the members. That's where the RCMP and Revenue Canada got it all wrong when they interpreted what happened to the General Workers Union in BC after they busted the president for embezzlement and gun charges. All they saw was the president getting re-elected just days before he went to jail. They washed their hands of union stuff thereafter. They saw it as the members not giving a hoot about the corruption. In fact they saw it as the members validating the actions of the president. They went away with a "why should we bother?" attitude. They didn't understand that unions aren't democratic organizations in the same sense as governments are.

The cream rises

I think that's what pervades the thinking of most Canadians when it comes to unions. They think that corruption rises to the top and is automatically skimmed off by the democratic process. Therefore, even if a rouge emerges, the members quickly expel him or her through the democratic process. Even most union members believe their organizations are democracies. They think surprise votes at membership meetings are democracy. They think that hand picked delegates voting is democracy. They think that a delegate being told how to vote is democracy.

However, what Canadians fail to realize is that unions are secretive, closed oligarchies. Information is carefully controlled and accurate information is available to but a few.

Better the devil you know

The comment someone made the other day on the MFD site was; "a bad contract is better than no contract at all" is another misconception amongst Canadians. At one time that may have been true, but not anymore. Bad contracts can create indentured slavery. Once covered by a "cooked" agreement you are stuck with your union overseers. I don't blame people for thinking that way when you consider how poorly treated they are under the "cooked" agreement. They think, "Gee, if I'm treated this bad with a union, just think what would befall me if they ever left me unprotected."

They wouldn't

I think another line of thinking that is pervasive in Canada is that employers and unions hate each other so much that they would never collude to screw workers. That's the big one, and that's where you and I come in. We've seen the dirty scams, collusion and pocket lining. Even if they did entertain the thought, they could never wrap their brains around who does that sort of thing. Bob's union and Shorty's Autobody might do a dirty deal, but the UFCW and Loblaws? C'mon that's Canada's largest food conglomerate and North America's largest trade union. They couldn't have got to where they are by doing sleazy deals. That's just unthinkable!

That is where the Canadian denial is rooted. It's not about whether corruption exists, but rather in who is doing it.

Corruption is image enhancing

Some union leaders don't fight corruption because they don't mind the persona that goes with being viewed as a union "heavy." Few "made" Mafiosi actually run unions. They have co-operators who run unions. The mafia or La Cosa Nostra use unions; they don't get too involved in the day-to-day operations. Unions may employ some street-level hoods but the really big guys have bigger outfits to run.

Corruption is a relationship

Think about what a union is supposed to do. Unions that do backroom deals can't achieve the things their members expect because they are beholden to employers. They have to have the cooperation of employers to do the backroom deals. If they have joint trusteed funds then the union bosses have to do something for the corporate bosses to have them allow the control needed to manipulate the money in the funds. If the union has complete and utter control then they usually have to give the employer something to get the employer to give up control. Look at construction. Lots of skanky employers and skanky unions. However, I don't think there's the level of trust between the partners that there once was. The Provigo "Partnering Agreement" is a fine example of, I'll give you the members, but you've got to sign on the dotted line that you will do me no real harm... ever."

Corruption looks normal

The sad thing about union corruption is that it has become so pervasive that most union leaders and their members can't recognize corruption when they see it. In some cases, the corruption has been legitimized by "democratic" votes on vague motions where the real meaning and intent is hidden. For example, "I move that in regard to building expenses all present and past expenditures be approved in accordance with the recognized audit procedures employed at the time of the expenditure. All in favor?" They hide yesterday's crime in today's activities.

What we don't know can't hurt us

Nobody really knows what most union presidents do in any given day, so what is a fair day's work? Is it within one's fiduciary duty to show his face for 15 hours per week, but still collect $128,000 per year for a supposed 60-hour week? Is the Local really supposed to pay for all those rounds of golf? Is it right to be taking company executives on dinners and golf games with the Union's funds? Is it corrupt to spend $5,000 to visit friends on the West Coast and drop into a Vancouver Local's office just so you can say it was "union business?" That sort of stuff is not considered corrupt anymore.

Where it comes from:

Union corruption usually stems from greed, lack of accountability and a false sense of entitlement.

What can cause personal corruption? I think it's when people stop looking inward and instead look outward for answers to their needs. A person who is or becomes incapable of self-reflection can easily turn into a psychopath. I draw a parallel to a union leader who looks outward for answers rather than looking to his or her members. People think that because it is their position to lead, those who are to be led have nothing to offer in the way of advice or direction. You and I know that's false because it's a basic tenet of education that you have to understand your students' needs and then work towards meeting those needs. You only find out their true needs by asking them directly, and then you should check from time to time to ensure you are on track.

Some of these guys who get the job are doing nothing but looking outward. They get hooked on the high life and they want more. They wangle a deal for "more" and find out how easy it is to get "more." If it's hard to get "more," they devise ways to make it easy. For example, those so-called volunteers who sit on executive boards can make up to $1,000 per month for sitting on the union's Executive Board. A motion is made to increase the e-board stipend because of all of the hard work they do to make the union great. Greed or a sense of entitlement takes over and the motion is passed. Then comes the "oh yeah, we have another piece of business here. The Prez needs a raise too, or he needs a better car." They would look like pigs if they gave themselves a raise and didn't allow the president one too. After all he works for his.

As well, the bigger the local, the easier it is to get "more." The members don't have a clue who the president is or what he does--neither do most of his business agents for that matter.

[A former biz union president] was corrupt from the beginning. He chose to run unions because they can be operated with little or no accountability to anyone. Tightly control all communication with the members, handpick your accomplices and you can do just about anything with impunity. You have access to large amounts of cash so you can buy off your enemies, so they don't tell about what you're up to. There is a "code of silence" amongst union bosses called "solidarity" that protects you from being reported to the media or your members. You run a private enterprise, which doesn't have to reveal more than a balance sheet to anyone.

It's the system that creates or allows the corruption. [Teamster's] Ron Cary was a good guy with noble intentions who got caught up in the system and is now facing indictment and possibly prison time. Enterprising guys (straight and not-so-straight) see the union system as access to huge amounts of cash with little if any outside interference. It's the system.

Bad Guys Get Caught, Don't They?

We believe that we live in a society of laws, that the rights of individuals are protected and that the guilty are apprehended and called to account for their actions. We assume that there are laws that govern the behavior of union officials, protect the rights of union members and that these laws are enforced by the various government agencies. We assume that if union bad guys exist, the law will catch up with them. We don't hear much about this so we assume that there can't be a lot of them around. But again, we're wrong about just about everything.

Contrary to what is widely believed, there are few laws that govern unions and the relationship between unions and their members. While most of us believe that the various labour relations acts provide some measure of protection for union members, that's just not the case. Labour relations legislation in Canada grants union members virtually nothing in the way of rights or protection. The main thrust of labour relations legislation is to regulate relations between employers and unions. So while, unions and employers have certain rights and obligations to each other, unions have little in the way of obligations towards their members.

Invisible just like the members

Union corruption appears not to exist because there is no venue where it can be addressed. Union members attempting to deal with corrupt officials have nowhere to go within the labour relations system. The statutory framework does not contemplate rights for members nor does it perceive corruption as an issue warranting attention. Within the system, the members have nowhere to go with their complaints. Outside the system, even where elements of criminality are present, law enforcement agencies look the other way.

It would appear that there is no corruption. None is reported (there is nowhere to report it), there are no official complaints (there is nowhere to complain) and no one is ever called to account.

What our contributors had to say this week about union officials who have lost their way:

Scott McPherson
Nobody is ever worth that kind of money for doing something they claim to do because they want to help improve the lives of working people. [That means other than you] I could swallow Dority pulling down that kind of bread if he could show me what he does for my dues dollars that actually benefits the local I'm in but that's it. 100K is more than enough money to live on for a local President and anything over and above that is a crime.

He's taken 175K that could have funded a number of other programs and word to wise...unions are only as strong as the power source that drives them, Presidents are expendable.

As long as union leaders expect monetary rewards ahead of the self satisfaction which comes from helping their fellow workers, the members are going to suffer these forms of injustice! IMHO, it's not what an individual is worth, it's what WE are worth!

About unions
Anybody surprised by the international union stand in protecting the status quo? It does not seem to matter whether it is the American Federation of Musicians protecting the status quo president or the UFCW stealing the ballot box of an election to protect a president from being ousted by pro union reformers. Is that what solidarity is all about, keeping people who the parent unions wants at any expense with any deceitful tactic??

Do the by-laws that most international unions allow locals to construct really legally mean nothing if the international union dislikes the decision of the local? If Quebec Musicians' Guild has followed the rules as set forth, then what is the problem?

It would have been more credible though if more than one hundred members showed up to show interest in the plight of their local. Nonetheless, 100 members did show up.

It will be very interesting how AFM deals with this event. Will they put the local into trusteeship to prevent the situation going to court? With trusteeship, AFM will cut off financial resources to fight in the courts.

Were the executives correct in seeking to oust the president? Is 100 members a sign of democracy or is just another means for another group to take control, just like a lot of other highly paid union officials do?

How much is a president worth anyway? If the members are making all the decision, a president should only be a " go get it done person". But instead, presidents think they are indispensable and untouchable.

The Post the Most

By about unions

Organized Labour Shouldn't Be Throwing Stones

How often have you heard hypocritical union leaders preaching about honor and uncommon values? Far too often, but they are usually not called on it, especially in the press. Well, the article below tells it as it is, and lets you make up your own opinion.

The union official in the spot light is John Sweeney, President of AFL-CIO. Sweeney, who represents 13 million U.S. workers and more than $5 trillion in pension funds, says labor unions will increase their push for accountability by meeting with executives, leading shareholder fights, holding demonstrations, lobbying and starting electronic mail campaigns.

David Kendrick, spokesman for the National Legal and Policy Center that tract union corruption says:

"We certainly think it's hypocritical for union officials to talk about protecting workers' investments when many of these international union presidents took advantage of insider rules to make a nice profit for themselves that their rank and file weren't entitled to,"

Not only is it hypocritical of union officials to preach about the conduct of corporate CEO's, but even more so to preach about a need for increased accountability of corporate executives. Sure the AFL-CIO pension funds lost $3.3 billion in the bankruptcies of Enron and WorldCom, but Sweeney is not disclosing all the money lost in pension funds by other unions through their own doing.

How hypocritical of union leaders like the President of United Food and Commercial Workers International suing the web site for their statements about the need for greater accountability of unions. delves deep into the conduct of union officials including the area of union pension losses, where the United Food and Commercial Workers Union has had its fair share of huge pension loses in its own pension fund.

There is no doubt that corporations need to be more accountable, but surely union leaders should not be the ones throwing the stones.

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