Unifor President Jerry Dias (Photo: Unifor Local 591-G)

The Canadian labour movement is abuzz debating and speculating on the potential ramifications of the decision of Canada’s largest private-sector union to quit the Canadian Labour Congress.

Unifor’s National Executive unanimously decided Tuesday to pull the plug on its affiliation with the national labour organization, which if nothing else will result in a significant financial hit to the CLC and possibly to provincial labour federations as well. The 300,000-plus-member union announced the decision yesterday.

Summarizing the reasons in a length suitable for tweeting — in this case by quoting yesterday’s Tweet by Unifor President Jerry Dias — “#Unifor has decided to disaffiliate from the Canadian Labour Congress due to inaction on U.S.-based unions trampling the rights of Canadian workers to choose representation or express dissent.”

The backstory, of course, is more complicated, ultimately about the question of if and when it is appropriate for unions to “raid” other unions — the always controversial practice of one union recruiting members from another, an activity that is subject to sanctions under the constitution of the CLC.

This is quite clear from Dias’s full statement on the Unifor website: “Over the course of the past year Unifor has been vocal and public about our concern with U.S.-based unions trampling on the rights of workers and their democratic right to choose their own representation or to express dissent,” he said, adding:

“In light of the ongoing lack of action and will by the affiliates of the Canadian Labour Congress to address the aggressive and undemocratic tactics shown by U.S.-based unions towards workers in Canadian locals, a decision was made by the leadership of our union … to discontinue Unifor’s affiliation and membership in the Canadian Labour Congress effective immediately.”

“Unifor stands in support of union democracy and the rights of workers. Our union is opposed to any union that threatens, harasses, intimidates, or silences workers for simply asserting their democratic rights to choose a union or for the purpose of quelling dissent within the local.”

Dias also provided Unifor members with a copy of the letter sent to CLC President Hassan Yussuff, who is a member of Unifor, which deals in more technical detail with the article of the CLC Constitution under which members can change unions in accordance with the CLC’s rules.

“The fact is, unions fought hard to have the Supreme Court of Canada recognize the rights of workers to have a union of their choice, but then forget this principle when preventing members from exercising their rights,” Dias told Yussuff in the letter.

“Unifor submits that contrary to the requirement of the CLC constitution, several U.S.-based unions do not have legitimate Canadian operations with autonomy from American interference,” the letter said.

In February last year, the leader of the Toronto Transit Commission local of the Amalgamated Transit Union was turfed from his job by the ATU’s Silver Spring, Maryland-based leadership and the local placed in receivership when members made moves to join a Canadian union, thought to be Unifor.

At a news conference at the time with the ousted ATU local president, Mr. Dias told journalists: “I am completely disgusted by the heavy handed actions by the international union.” It was not missed in news coverage of that event that Dias himself was a veteran of the battle by the Canadian Autoworkers Union — which later merged with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union to form Unifor — to split in 1985 from the Detroit-based United Autoworkers Union.

In a short statement published on the CLC’s website yesterday, Yussuff said he was “deeply disappointed” by the Unifor announcement.

“This evening the CLC held an emergency meeting of our Canadian Council, the CLC’s highest decision-making body between conventions,” he said. “At this meeting, our affiliates reaffirmed their unanimous support for the CLC and a strong labour movement.”

“In turn, I stressed that as CLC president, I am committed to resolving this issue and reuniting Canada’s labour movement, and that I take my responsibility to do that very seriously.”

However, notwithstanding his commitment to resolving the dispute, because of the wording of the CLC’s own constitution, Yussuff’s continued presidency and that of the presidents of the Alberta, Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador labour federations, as well as many local labour councils including Edmonton’s, has to be seen as being in some doubt today.

The national labour organization’s constitution says, among other things, that an officer must be a member of an affiliate or chartered body, and that the Congress and its affiliates will not recognize an affiliate or chartered body that has left the Congress or been suspended or expelled.

So this would seem to create a serious problem for Yussuff and those presidents of provincial federations and other labour organizations who are now members of Unifor.

Indeed, a short and strong statement on social media from Sid Ryan, a former president of both CUPE Ontario and the Ontario Federation of Labour, argued that “Brother Yussuff has no choice but to step down as president of the CLC.”

“The CLC constitution is clear, he cannot hold elected office if his union is not in good standing,” Ryan said in his Facebook post. “Anything less would be making a mockery of the constitution.”

“The constitution is also very clear that a union cannot be affiliated to a federation or labour council, if their national union is not affiliated to the CLC,” Ryan’s commentary went on. “We have constitutions for a reason, they set out the rules by which labour governs itself.”

“Any gerrymandering of the constitutions … should be met by fierce membership resistance,” he concluded.

Expect these issues to be debated harshly over the next few days.

In the interests of full disclosure, the author of this post is a former CEP local vice-president, although he has never been a member of Unifor, and is currently a member in good standing of the United Steelworkers union and an employee of the United Nurses of Alberta. The views and understanding of events expressed in this blog post are his own.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Unifor Local 591-G

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David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...