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The Canadian House of Labour is a house divided.

One fissure has grown so deep it could quickly have serious financial consequences for such national labour central organizations as the Canadian Labour Congress and the provincial federations of labour, known among trade unionists as “the House of Labour.”

In a dispute over raiding — the controversial practice of one union trying to take members away from another — the National Union of Public and General Employees announced Nov. 25 that its executive board had unanimously voted to suspend its participation in the activities of the Canadian Labour Congress.

The CLC responded by banning all NUPGE affiliates from participating in provincial labour federations and community labour councils, effective New Year’s Day 2011 — a move that hurts those bodies in the short term but could threaten the existence of NUPGE over time.

According to a special report on the situation distributed by the CLC to its members, NUPGE is currently in arrears to the CLC in the amount of $1.99 million.

Now, NUPGE is a somewhat artificial entity — a supposed national union that is in fact an alliance of provincial government employees’ unions and a few provincial health care unions designed to meet the terms of the CLC constitution, which insists member unions have a national presence.

But because the provincial public service unions are among the largest and most vigorous labour organizations in the country, their withdrawal from the CLC and the loss of millions of dollars in affiliation fees to the CLC and provincial and local labour bodies is potentially a grave blow.

To get a sense of the size of the contribution, consider the 65,000-member British Columbia Government and Service Employees Union. BCGEU shows in its 2009 annual financial report that it paid $2.1 million in affiliation fees that year. While the BCGEU does not provide a breakdown, the bulk of those funds would have gone to NUPGE, the CLC, the B.C. Federation of Labour and local labour councils.

Spread across 11 component unions and 340,000 members of NUPGE, the size of the potential loss to the CLC, the federations and local labour councils is huge.

In its Nov. 25 statement, NUPGE gave no details of its specific complaints, explaining only that “NUPGE’s National Executive Board made this decision because the collective leadership of the CLC has made no progress in finding an effective solution to the destructive practice of raiding. …”

Raiding, of course, is always a controversial matter in the labour movement. Most trade unionists believe unions should expend their organizing efforts on people without unions. But the harsh reality is that over time, in many circumstances, this has turned into an excuse to treat union members as if they are property, no matter how unhappy they may become with the service they receive from their union, or how justified their unhappiness.

Provincial labour laws recognize the right of working people to change unions, and provide a mechanism for them to do so.

So, while details were not included in NUPGE’s statement, the organization’s gambit was clearly an attempt to browbeat the CLC into making a number of its member unions stop raiding NUPGE affiliates.

The statement, however, said NUPGE and its components “are committed to continuing our participation in provincial Federations of Labour and community Labour Councils across the country.”

But the CLC in effect has called NUPGE’s bluff, refusing to fold and sending a pretty strong message to the leadership of NUPGE in the process.

In the special report of the CLC executive council on the NUPGE withdrawal sent to CLC affiliates on Dec. 1, the national labour organization took the unusual step of describing the specific situations NUPGE has been complaining about — revealing NUPGE’s case as shaky.

The CLC special report reveals, for example, that:

–    NUPGE’s Manitoba component fought hard, though unsuccessfully, to keep Manitoba Lottery Corp. employees who wanted to join the Teamsters in 2004 from having a union at all, arguing they were managers. When a Labour Board vote of the bargaining unit was held, the Teamsters won by 76 per cent

–    As a result of that case, NUPGE withheld per-capita payments to the CLC in 2006, which is why the CLC refused to allow NUPGE to be seated at its 2008 convention

–    NUPGE was not satisfied with the CLC’s efforts to stop a 2009 raid by the B.C. Nurses Union on its BCGEU component and withheld per-capita payments to the CLC. According to the CLC special report, NUPGE has ignored an agreement by its president to repay the arrears

–    In 2007, however, NUPGE’s BCGEU component raided a Vancouver local of UNITE HERE! after its application to the CLC to allow the raid was rejected. NUPGE’s component lost the vote, and would not write a requested letter of apology to UNITE HERE!

The internal CLC document also stated that the CLC constitution is clear, “no CLC subordinate body can recognize a union that has left the Congress. NUPGE’s decision to withdraw from the CLC means it is withdrawing from the federations of labour and from labour councils.”

Therefore, the CLC special report said, “NUPGE’s withdrawal will be effective Jan. 1, 2011. This means, after Jan. 1, 2011, no NUPGE component will be able to participate in federations of labour or labour councils…”

This does more than simply deprive NUPGE of a pulpit to complain about raiding by other CLC member unions. Since a case can be made NUPGE does relatively little for its component members other than provide an entrée to the CLC and other labour central organizations, over time this move may create an appetite among affiliates to find ways to solve the problem of being excluded from the CLC that could threaten the existence of NUPGE.

In other words, the CLC has called NUPGE’s bluff, and upped the ante.

This post also appears on David Climernhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

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...