Lack of local elections a rare situation: OLRB

Lack of local executive election leads to unfair labour practice allegation by members

A petition by members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 1110 to force an election for local executive positions is a rarity, according to Voy Stelmaszynski, a solicitor with the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB).

The local represents more than 5,000 health-care workers across the province. It has been under “provisional” status since its inception in 1997 and has never held local elections.

Now some of members are asking the OLRB to force a vote, alleging the lack of elections constitutes an unfair labour practice under the provincial labour relations act.

Local elections are generally an internal matter regulated by a union’s constitution, Stelmaszynski says.

However, there are provisions within provincial legislation that allow the OLRB to make an order allowing a parent union to exert trusteeship, or supervision, over a local when union members make allegations of misconduct.

These allegations are typically related to the mishandling of money or union officers not doing their job properly. To his knowledge, there has never been an application based on a lack of elections, Stelmaszynski says.

“We can’t prevent union members from coming in with any complaint,” he says. “Whether or not we have jurisdiction over it, and what the remedy will be, is dependent on a number of things.”

The provisions in the code apply only to construction unions, Stelmaszynski notes. This is the first time a non-construction union has made such a request, and it’s not clear yet how this application will proceed as a result, he says.

In the case of a trusteeship, the OLRB’s role during the first year is to “babysit” the file, he says. There is no adjudication or hearing. The file is simply kept open until the first anniversary.

About 80 per cent of situations resolve themselves before this point, Stelmaszynski says.

When they don’t, the parent union can apply to extend the trusteeship for another year and order mediation.

If the situation remains unresolved at the two-year mark, the OLRB will hold a hearing and make an order based on the evidence.

Although the OLRB handles “fewer than 10” trusteeship situations each year, the board has never had to take this final step, according to Stelmaszynski.

Decertification of a union local would only happen under certain conditions, he says. The union members themselves could bring forward the application during the open period between contracts, or ask for a straight decertification vote conducted by the OLRB.

Members could also allege the local’s certification certificate was granted to the union because of fraud, and the board would hold a hearing.

If there was evidence to support the allegation, the certificate could be nullified.

It’s premature to speculate about the future of LIUNA Local 1110, Stelmaszynski says.

While labour relations experts are reluctant to discuss the internal workings of the local, critics of trade unions say the situation underscores inherent problems within the legislation in Canada that governs them.

The lack of local elections at Local 1110 in 15 years is “shocking and unacceptable,” says John Mortimer, president of Labour Watch, a non-profit organization that advocates for employee rights.

Trade unions should be governed by the same guidelines that require corporations to hold open elections, Mortimer argues.

“Lawmakers need to make changes so there are legal consequences for this behaviour,” he says. “What makes a union different than any other organization?”

It’s unfair to demand workers belong to and pay for union membership without ensuring they have access to an open and transparent organization, says Mortimer, a critic of mandatory union dues in Canada.

“When the legal system enables people to lose their job (for not joining the union in their workplace), unions should be held to a different standard,” he says, “whether it’s an election, or access to financial statements or the ballots in a strike vote.”

There are few options for the members of LIUNA frustrated with the lack of elections, aside from decertifying or joining another union, Mortimer says.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners union is going after 1,200 Local 1110 members who work at several long-term and home-care operations.

The situation is a symptom of a much larger problem, Mortimer says.

“When you don’t have a real accountability requirement, (union leaders) will be tempted to abuse their power,” he says, adding “not all unions behave this way.”

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