Union boss proposes shared strike funds

Federal union looks to tap new resources ahead of bargaining

If the head of a relatively small union has her way, the federal public service employees that she represents could have access to resources from bigger unions, including their strike and defence funds.

Newly elected president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE) Emanuelle Tremblay came to power in November riding a platform of change — she promised to bolster CAPE by turning its previously business-driven model into one with more social leanings.

That includes tapping into the resources of the bigger federal public service labour unions such as the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC). Though CAPE has traditionally been less militant than those bigger unions, Tremblay said training and education surrounding political savvy, mobilization and organizing efforts is something her union would do well to glean from the more active unions.

"We need to question the way this union is functioning — which is strictly on a surface level. And we need to be ready to be a fighting organization, given the current attacks of the Conservative government upon unionism in general, and public service unions in particular," she said.

As such, this month Tremblay proffered an unofficial "service agreement" between certain unions that would ease the transfer of resources and give her members access to the strike funds of PSAC or PIPSC — something the CAPE membership has never had. PSAC has about $30 million in its strike fund.

According to Tremblay, the shift is a necessary one, prompted by the federal government’s changes to the Public Service Labour Relations Act, under which federal public service unions will now either have to opt for conciliation or a strike as the primary method for dispute resolutions. Arbitration will only take place in situations where at least 80 per cent of bargaining unit positions are considered essential, and when both parties are in mutual agreement. As well, certain organizations would require express permission from the Treasury Board president.

"CAPE has no choice but to use the conciliation (or) strike route — and yet it has no strength," Tremblay explained. "If the level of CAPE members is not strong enough to say, ‘I can’t go on strike for this because I can’t afford to lose pay’ then they could be stuck with a very bad deal because the current deal is extremely bad. It opens the wedge and basically creates a precedence and that’s what we want to do."

In past rounds of negotiations, CAPE’s 12,000 members always opted for arbitration when bargaining hit a wall. There was no need for a strike fund because there was never any motivation to strike — arbitration had worked successfully for the union in the past, Tremblay said. As such, members’ dues are $48 per month, one of the lowest rates of all 17 federal public service unions.

Now, CAPE will need to align itself philosophically to stay relevant, according to J.D. Sharp, a management-side labour lawyer who specializes in arbitration at Emond Harnden in Ottawa.

"As you go up the ranks in the union, if you take blue-collar and service-type workers and then you go up into the professionals and quasi professionals that are unionized, they’re not always as militant. It can be harder to get them militant; they’re making a little more money, their lives are a little more sorted and stable perhaps, and the thought of hitting the bricks may not be quite as appealing," Sharp explained. "For a small union like this, that goes on for enough years and you can lag behind."

For so-called big fish PSAC and PIPSC, Sharp cautioned that a service agreement could backfire and muddle individual constitutions or fuel tensions at the bargaining table.

"Certainly it will represent a change in stance. It may lead to more attention and a little more of an aggressive approach than perhaps both sides of the table have experienced in the past. That can lead to friction," he said. "Certainly whoever is at the table will be aware of it; will be aware that there’s at least a move to have a bit more back bone. The money, the strike fund, provides you with a back bone. If you don’t have the money in the bank to cover a strike, it’s pretty hard to make a lot of threats."

Further complicating the matter is that every union has its own individual constitution and obligation to its membership.

"It’s more a matter for PIPSC and PSAC to look at that and say, ‘Do we want to open our coffers to let these guys do something?’" Sharp said. "You’ve got to be very careful because you can see the scenario where, if a small union takes off on a weird, irresponsible course of conduct and drains a big chunk of your strike and defence fund, then all of a sudden you have to go back to your members and explain to them how you just blew $1 million from their dues."

President of PSAC Robyn Benson said that while there is currently no plan to enter into a service agreement or share strike monies with CAPE, she is willing to discuss the possibility.

The 'm' word

Mergers in the labour movement are the latest trend, most notably sparked by the bellwether marriage between the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications Energy and Paperworkers to form Unifor in 2013.

This latest move by CAPE, according to Nick Milanovic, an adjunct professor of labour law and legal studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, is a way to test the waters of a merger.

"Often what the organization is doing is a dry run for a merger. It’s innovative and it has some danger in it," he said. "They recognize their limitations and they’re trying to mitigate those limitations vis-a-vis the federal government, but if they choose wrongly then there’s a potential at least for a negative experience and a fight in the future."

For instance, in rare cases of service agreements, Milanovic said the larger union can try and displace the bargaining agent for those CAPE members the next time the collective agreement is open and legally available.

Because unions and the Treasury Board both have taken an aggressive stance for the upcoming round of negotiations, a service agreement could bolster the labour side further to find common cause, he added.

"Traditionally, not just with the federal government, but when a large employer with many bargaining units is looking for take-backs, you bargain with the weakest bargaining agent, you get that take-back and then you make it the pattern," Milanovic said. "It’s a potential way for (unions) to unite, to use the old term solidarity; they can work together, and the weakest link has been strengthened."

What will a shared strike fund look like?

Being established on a bedrock of solidarity, it comes as no surprise unions and labour groups have divvied up coffers in the past. For instance, when teachers were on strike in British Columbia last summer, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation received an $8-million loan from the province’s federation of labour as well as a $500,000 donation from the nurses’ union.

But what a formal service agreement would look like, and what mechanism could be applied to a shared strike fund, is still unclear. As union leaders meet to discuss the possibility, Nick Milanovic from Carleton University offers a few potential models.

"What is interesting is that members from both unions have contributed to their strike funds, if they have them prepared. They paid to their union and their unions are governed by their own constitu-tions, so they're going to have to respect that constitution and provide an extra level of funding."

"If there’s going to be some sort of service agreement, some portion of dues could be paid from the smaller union to the larger union."

"If there’s a labour dispute, they would get some sort of top-up, the strike pay would not, I assume, be paid in full by the larger union — some portion would be paid by the smaller union. Perhaps you could structure it in a number of ways. 'After 30 days of labour unrest or strike or lockout, then you’re entitled to withdraw this much,' for example. It could tap out over a period of time — maybe the larger union doesn’t want to be involved after six months, who knows. It really is up to the parties to sit down, and that depends on what this round of bargaining will look like."

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