04/25/2013 05:06 EDT | Updated 06/25/2013 05:12 EDT

Collective Bargaining Is Political

Terrance Oakey recently took objection with the Public Service Alliance of Canada's YouTube video on cuts to the environment implemented by Stephen Harper's Conservative Government. Apart from not liking the video's message and concept, which, given his credentials as head of an anti-union lobby group, doesn't come as a surprise, Oakey is particularly bothered by the fact that the PSAC -- a union -- produced the video.

He claims that because "the union leadership" can spend members' dues "on a range of political and social causes that have nothing to do with collective bargaining," politicians should "support worker choice legislation that would allow unionized workers to opt out of financing political or social causes unrelated to collective bargaining but funded out of forced union dues."

Oakey's arguments are bizarre. It is difficult to understand how the PSAC's engagement on the question of federal cuts to environmental protection is somehow disconnected from collective bargaining. Does Oakey really believe that the PSAC should not defend its members' interests? And more broadly, does Oakey really believe that the PSAC should not alert its members' as well as the public's attention to the impact of these cuts? That over 99% of Canada's lakes and rivers are no longer subject to federal oversight, and that some 3,000 environmental assessments were abruptly cancelled last year by the Conservatives?

PSAC members working for Environment Canada, for example, inspect lakes and rivers and watersheds and habitats, among a multitude of other tasks -- diligently and in the public interest. These employees are being cut in the corporate interest of lowering company operating costs, in order to increase already impressive profits that in turn are being taxed at a ridiculously low rate. That's the real, corporate conservative agenda here, and one that undoubtedly has Oakey's full support.

Moreover, Oakey would have us believe that unions exist in some sort of vacuum, in which negotiating contracts is an apolitical process. This is sheer nonsense -- even the Supreme Court of Canada understood over 20 years ago that one cannot separate collective bargaining from politics. In the key Lavigne vs. OPSEU decision of 1991, Justice Gérard La Forest explained that the unionization model in Canada ensures that unions have "both the resources and the mandate necessary to enable them to play a role in shaping the political, economic and social context within which particular collective agreements and labour relations disputes will be negotiated and resolved." (my emphasis)

Firstly, the "resources" Justice La Forest refers to are union dues. Those who choose to become employed in unionized workplaces -- that is, workplaces whose workers democratically voted to form a union -- must contribute through dues towards the benefits (i.e., better salaries and working conditions) of belonging to that union. Oakey, however, claims that these dues are "forced", conveniently ignoring the fact that dues levels are set and democratically voted on by members. A decent analogy here would be that just because I don't personally agree with Stephen Harper's government policies and decisions, it does not mean I can mount an argument that my taxes are "forced" upon me -- and that I should be able to "opt out" of paying taxes. This is a dangerous precept in society, because anarchy is not far behind Mr. Oakey's proposal.

Secondly, the "mandate" Justice La Forest refers to comes from membership engagement via democratic structures. While Oakey implies that the union leadership is somehow unaccountable, able to do whatever it wants, the reality is that union leaders at all levels -- from shop stewards to presidents -- are elected to their roles for fixed terms by either workplace colleagues or the broader membership. Moreover, through committees, councils and conventions, union members regularly vote on the direction of the union by adopting policies, allocating budgets, and setting strategy.

As a federal public service union, the PSAC's members have first-hand knowledge of the cuts to various public services, be it food inspection, aviation safety or social security programs like Old Age Security.

Given this, it is nothing less than our obligation, as fully participating members of civil society, to continue alerting Canadians to these cuts and their impacts, all too often hidden from view through omnibus budget bills and government "feel good" misinformation.