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Do Unions Trump Your Right To Privacy?

05/30/2013 06:16 EDT | Updated 07/30/2013 05:12 EDT
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Sid Ryan addresses Striking Air Canada flight attendants supported by a few other unions rally outside Terminal One at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. September 20, 2011 (Photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

As someone who regularly deals with contentious issues, I prefer to keep my address and telephone number unlisted. I don't want to pick up my home phone, or answer a knock at my door, and find one of the people who send me nasty e-mails ranting at me in person. I therefore have considerable sympathy for Elizabeth Bernard, who resides somewhere in the Ottawa area and doesn't want her employer -- the federal government -- to give her home address and phone number to her union.

Ms. Bernard is trying to keep her personal information from the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), the 60,000-member union that represents government employees in her department. She is so adamant about keeping her home contact information private that she is going to the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) on June 12 to try to persuade the court to overturn a lower court's decision, which held that her employer must hand her information to the union.

And if you think going head-to-head against a powerful union like PIPSC is courageous, get this: Ms. Bernard -- who is not a lawyer herself -- is representing herself at the SCC. Now that's spunk.

Ms. Bernard has chosen not to belong to PIPSC. She is legally entitled not to join, although this freedom doesn't help her much, since she is still forced to pay union dues for the supposed benefits of union representation. (That rule, called the "Rand formula," was established by Supreme Court justice Ivan Rand in a 1946 decision.)

Nevertheless, Ms. Bernard is entitled to eschew union membership if she wishes, which means she doesn't get to vote on internal union matters such as the election of officers or the use of her involuntarily paid union dues. However, the union can (and does) communicate with her at her workplace when it needs to provide information about employment-related subjects. She has never objected to PIPSC having her office contact information.

Ms. Bernard told me in an e-mail that she just wants to go to work, do her job to the best of her ability, and then go home and be left alone. Her workplace is relatively peaceful right now, with no major labour disputes occurring, but she wants to avoid any problems in case that should change.

In the written material she submitted to the SCC, Ms. Bernard cites a couple of cases where individuals have been harassed at their homes by union members.

In one, an Ontario government employee complained that her home was picketed by her co-workers after she chose to work during a strike called by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union. Her name was placed on a "scab list" and circulated to her neighbours. She was followed from her home to her son's school. And messages were left on her telephone answering machine by people calling themselves "the Oshawa mob."

In the case of a strike at Telus Communications in Alberta, the homes of 10 non-striking employees were picketed by shouting, swearing union members.

The SCC has itself noted that "the history of labour relations in Quebec is rife with violence." Quebec is not alone in this. Labour relations across the country have occasionally been characterized by violence, threats, intimidation, and trespassing.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees Canadians a constitutional right to freedom of association. Ms. Bernard will be arguing that freedom of association includes freedom from unwanted association.

If her home contact information is given to the union without her consent, then she cannot be free from association with the union, should it attempt to contact her at home. She will also argue that the disclosure of personal information would violate the Privacy Act, enacted 30 years ago precisely for the purpose of ensuring that the federal government respects the privacy needs of individuals.

A stellar cast of interveners has lined up to participate in this court case. The Privacy Commissioner of Canada is supporting the right of "Rand employees" like Ms. Bernard to keep their home contact information private. Curiously, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association -- whom one would ordinarily have expected to champion the rights of the individual as against the power of a vast organization such as PIPSC -- will be supporting the union side.

The court's ruling could have a profound impact on labour relations in Canada and will be awaited with great interest.

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