Alberta’s UCP government likes to keep a tight rein on labour unions. One of the first pieces of legislation brought in after their election in 2019 was the infamous Bill 32, the inappropriately named the Restoring Balance in Alberta’s Workplaces Act, 2020.

The Bill, among other things, split union activities into “core” and “non-core” activities. Non-core included activities such as political and charitable donations, and members had to give personal permission before any part of their dues went toward them. The result was less money coming in to union coffers, thus less for charity.

Many unions decided the extra paperwork wasn’t worth the hassle. Terry Parker, executive director of Building Trades of Alberta, the umbrella organization for 18 construction unions, observed, “To make sure that we’re dealing with core activity, we don’t donate anything to charity.”

The Building Trades and its affiliates have over the years donated millions of dollars to organizations such as the Stollery Children’s Hospital, the Heart & Stroke Foundation, food banks, women’s shelters and many others. 

Jason Foster, associate professor of human resources and labour relations at Athabasca University, estimated community organizations and registered charities would lose about $3.5 million in donations.

The UCP now seem to have realized their folly and are planning to change the legislation. The premier has directed Jobs, Economy and Trade Minister Matt Jones to consult with private sector unions in order to “reduce red tape” in aspects of the Bill that make it “unduly onerous for unions to make charitable donations.”

Oddly, or perhaps pointedly, the premier didn’t mention public sector unions even though they, too, are affected by the legislation. This may be partly due to the fact that the Building Trades has a constitutional challenge of the opt-in provision before the courts. Perhaps the government would prefer an out of court settlement?

One might argue that unions should not be able to use their members’ dues for anything but core business. After all, the principle point of dues is to represent the members’ workplace issues. But the interests of members may be affected by more than what occurs in the workplace. Which political party is in government is an obvious example. Charitable giving ties a union to the community and, of no small importance, enhances its reputation and therefore its ability to serve its members comprehensively.

Inevitably some members will disapprove of some of its choices. But unions are democratic organizations and each member has his or her say in choosing the people who make the decisions. They can always vote them out.

Notably, the Supreme Court has ruled that full mandatory union dues are constitutional.

I find it curious that while conservative governments such as the UCP believe that unions should require opt-in by members for “non-core” donations, they don’t support opt-in for shareholders of corporations. Considering that unions are democratic (one member-one vote), and corporations are plutocratic (one share-one vote, i.e. rule by the rich) we should favour the former.

At least if we favour democracy over plutocracy, and conservatives do, don’t they?

In any case, at least the UCP is coming to its senses on unions and charitable donations. One step at a time.

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