06/17/2013 12:26 EDT | Updated 08/17/2013 05:12 EDT

How a Union Could Save the RCMP

My advice to Stephen Harper is this: the RCMP needs a union, to improve the lot of the rank and file, to be sure, but also to help managers improve the institution. In fact, I would say forming a union is critical to rehabilitating our national police service, where efforts at reform keep spinning their wheels. .

I'm not exactly a "union man."

I grew up in an environment in which labour unions were regarded as impediments to getting things done. Unions make a big thing of solidarity. I'm more taken with independent thought.

That doesn't make me sound like I'm any more of a union man than, say, Stephen Harper, does it?

Yet my advice to Stephen Harper is this: the RCMP needs a union, to improve the lot of the rank and file, to be sure, but also to help managers improve the institution. In fact, I would say forming a union is critical to rehabilitating our national police service, where efforts at reform keep spinning their wheels. The lawsuits from disaffected employees and former employees just keep rolling in, and low morale continues to fester within the ranks.

Much of the institution's morale problem can be attributed to understaffing -- it is baffling that a law-and-order government has cut back on RCMP recruitment when vacancies persist on any given day at any given detachment across the country. Too many members are overworked, which produces stress, which sometimes, not surprisingly, leads to poor performance.

But understaffing is only one of the phenomena underlying workplace frustration with the RCMP. In an institution so long run by fiat and plagued by cronyism, it is difficult to spin the situation on a dime and pretend that fairness suddenly reigns and that merit is all that counts.

Fairness remains a capricious concept within the RCMP. It has been an authoritarian institution for a long time, with a military mindset that tends to produce arbitrary decisions on issues like promotions and discipline.

"Staff relations representatives" are supposed to advance legitimate complaints. But these people owe their jobs to their bosses, who may be the subjects of those very complaints. Plus the representatives are paid by the RCMP, which can't help but evoke the old adage -- he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Sometimes Mounties who dare to complain get a fair shake. Sometimes, after drawn-out relegation to the penalty box, they don't. Either way, filing a complaint is never a good career move. So most of those who are bullied, or maligned, or even assaulted, suffer in silence.

A union would help. People with the this government's ideological bent are usually convinced that unions make it difficult for management to hire and fire and discipline in an efficient way. Current Commissioner Bob Paulson has complained that it has been problematic for the top brass to fire the kind of bad apples who tarnish the service's name. The government's response has been to push a bill through Parliament that will give the RCMP enhanced powers to fire people.

So why would I want to bring a union into the mix? Wouldn't a union just get in the way of giving well-intentioned bosses more leeway to get rid of bad people?

That's not what several police chiefs across the country have told me. What they've told me is that when an institution has a union, the union and management are compelled to establish a clear, fair set of rules that everybody understands.

When the rules are clear, two things tend to happen. First, you get less bad apple behaviour because the negative consequences are clearly defined in an agreement negotiated between management and the union. Second, disputes are settled by disinterested parties -- not the bosses whose hockey buddies may be the subjects of complaint. There will still be antagonism, but at least the process is seen as fair.

It is true that policing is an essential service. But virtually every other police service in Canada is unionized, and you don't see cops walking off the job across the country. In every case governments have simply passed legislation declaring policing an essential service.

Studies have shown that far too many people below the top ranks of the RCMP see it as an unfair place to work -- especially for women and minorities, but also for white males outside the circle of influence. Last week at a committee hearing Commissioner Paulson dismissed these kinds of people as bitter losers: "Let's face it. Some people's ambitions exceed their abilities. I cannot lead a force that accommodates and seeks to compensate people for [their] unachieved ambitions."

Paulson told the committee that he had held the hands of female Mounties abused by fellow members. He said he had asked one female officer -- Staff Sgt. Caroline O'Farrell -- how he could help redress her claim that male officers in the Musical Ride had abused her. "I asked what I, what we, or what anyone could do to help her. She did not want our help She only handed me her statement of claim before it was filed..."

It is past time for handholding at the RCMP. It is past time for subordinate member to have to depend on the sympathy of the commissioner or any other senior officer to get treated with respect.

It strikes me that there are two paths to redemption for members who have been badly treated by the RCMP: laws suits or a union.

Lawsuits escalate antagonism and sully the once-hallowed name of the RCMP over and over again as cases go to court.

Unions aren't everyone's cup of tea. There is no doubt that management has to lead but unions can often bring balance to situations where employees' rights have been abused, and this is surely one of them.

The Harper government introduced a bill in the last Parliament that would have empowered RCMP members to form a union because an Ontario court ordered it to. But the government appealed the decision, won, and replaced its union bill with the bill to give the commissioner more power to fire people.

Just what was needed. More authoritarian decision-making, more arbitrary decisions.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Calgary Herald, June 15, 2013.

Colin Kenny is the former chair of the Senate Committee on Security and Defence.

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