Unions in Alberta, Canada Force Members to Subsidize Politics

The United States isn’t the only country where unions have flouted the principle that it is wrong to route dues to political causes against the wishes of individual workers.  At least one province in Canada has the same problem.  And that has a nonprofit workers’ rights group riled up enough to call organized labor’s number.  Residents of the western province of Alberta may have noticed lately a spate of radio and television political ads sponsored by a group called Albertans for Change.  Though innocuous-sounding, it’s a hardball coalition run by the leaders of the Alberta Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Alberta Building Trades Council (ABTC). 


Alberta law allows unions to force members to support political purposes.  In other words, a member who objects to a certain portion of his dues money being used in this way cannot get a refund.  And if he withholds dues outright he risks losing his job.  A Vancouver, B.C.-based organization, the Canadian Labour Watch Association (www.labourwatch.com), analogous to a hybrid of our own country’s National Right to Work Association and Center for Union Facts, thinks this violates principles of a free society.  “The AFL and ABTC have not obtained the consent of their 190,000 forced members to claim they are ‘Albertans for Change’ and use their forced union dues for political purposes let alone negative attack ads,” said Labour Watch President John Mortimer.  “It is deceitful for AFL and ABTC leaders to say they speak for all unionized employees in Alberta.”  The current ads of Albertans for Change do not disclose their union connections.         


Organized labor in Alberta defends its campaign, arguing that their province allows unions to use forced-dues payments for political causes.  Moreover, they point to a 1991 Canadian Supreme Court ruling, Lavigne v. Ontario Public Service Employees Union, a leading decision on freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982.  In that case, plaintiff Francis Lavigne, a teacher at an Ontario community college, sued his union for donating dues money to a variety of causes to which he objected.  Lavigne argued that the practice, though permitted under the union’s constitution and the Colleges Collective Bargaining Act, violated certain sections of the Canadian rights charter.  The court ruled against him.  But that ruling, argues Labour Watch’s Mortimer, was premised on a set of facts that included voluntary rather than forced membership, and thus doesn’t apply to Albertans for Change.   


Labour Watch’s Right to Work campaign has been busy.  The group in 2007 sponsored a nationwide speaking tour of a Swedish human rights lawyer, Jan Sodergren, to educate Canadians on the need for more worker freedom.  Sodergren noted during his tour that the European Human Rights Court has declared it illegal for a union to use dues paid by non-members for political purposes and for a union to force membership upon a worker as a precondition for obtaining or keeping a job.  The battle looks pretty familiar to a lot of Americans.  (Canadian Labour Watch Association, 1/24/08; other sources).