The headline news this morning is that the BCTF plans to campaign to unseat the government in the next election. A timely opportunity to remind ourselves of the extraordinary advantage that unions in British Columbia enjoy when it comes to politics. Unlike any other organization in our society, a union can compel bargaining unit employees to contribute to support political causes.
That’s right. If you are an employee in a workplace that has been organized by a union, you are required by law to pay dues to the union, and the union is permitted by law to use those funds for political advocacy. To make donations to political parties, take out ads in support of political parties, all of it. This is not just the way the BCTF membership rules work; it’s the way the BC Labour Relations Code works.
So to put this in the context of today’s announcement, thousands of teachers who are members and supporters of the BC Liberal Party woke up today to discover that their union plans to require them to pay for a political campaign against the party and government they support.
In a word, that is outrageous.
It’s all the more troublesome when, as is the case here, we are talking about a public sector union, whose members are paid by tax dollars. That means the BCTF campaign against the BC Liberals will effectively be paid for by tax dollars. Your tax dollars. My tax dollars.
I am not aware of any other organization in society that gets this advantage. I am not arguing here against the compulsory payment of union dues for labour relations purposes. That’s a good issue for another day. I can at least understand the logic behind requiring all bargaining unit employees to pay dues to support the union that bargains on their behalf so that it can do the work of bargaining. But there is no valid labour relations purpose in requiring an employee to pay dues to a union so that it can launch a political campaign.
In my view, that’s a violation of one of our most fundamental and cherished freedoms - the right to decide for ourselves who we want to support politically.
I’m sorry to say that during my time in government we did nothing to remove this legal obligation. But luckily, there is a bill on the order papers of the BC Legislature right now that would do that very thing. It’s Bill M 210 - 2011, the Workers’ Dues Transparency and Rights Act. Introduced by John Rustad, the BC Liberal MLA for Nechako Lakes.
Here’s what it does. It amends the Labour Relations Code by requiring trade unions to establish a separate labour relations account for the purpose of collecting monies and paying for the core activities in support of their members. It defines those core activities broadly to include all labour relations activities, and then it provides that union dues can only be used for those activities.
Passing this act would protect the democratic rights of all workers to support whichever political party they want to - as an expression of their own choice, not the decision made in a union head office - without in any way compromising the ability of unions to represent the labour relations interests of its members. It strikes exactly the right balance. It is timely, and it is overdue for enactment.
Note to BC House Leader: why not call this bill for second reading debate when the House resumes on April 16?
A point of clarification, after reading Ryan's reply (below). I am not opposed to political advocacy by the labour movement. If an organization that is not a union - say, the BC Federation of Labour - established a political action fund supported by voluntary contributions, that's not a problem. (I leave for another day whether we should embrace a more radical reform of political donations.) My objection is to the fact that unions are legally authorized to compel their members to contribute financially to political causes.