Hydro Relieves Workers of Freedom to Choose Association: Manitoba should follows European Union example

Manitoba Hydro’s requirements that workers on large scale projects be unionized is a violation of freedom of association.
Published on July 10, 2013

Manitoba Hydro’s new unionization requirement for workers on large-scale projects is a scandalous violation of freedom of association.

Merit Contractors Association of Manitoba, which represents 4,600 workers, filed a suit with the Court of Queen’s Bench against the new requirement.

“As a condition of receiving work, Hydro’s transmission line collective agreement requires all employees to join a union and pay union dues,” said Harvey Miller, the association’s executive director. “We believe this violates fundamental Charter rights guaranteed to workers, including the rights to freedom of expression and association.”

This unionization requirement puts Manitoba behind other jurisdictions. Years ago, on the other side of the pond, the European Court of Human Rights interpreted Article 20 (2) of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights quite literally. That provision states that, “No one may be compelled to belong to an association.”

This obviously has implications for unions.

Two European legal decisions — Evaldsson and Sørensen — together render union dues imposed on non-members for non-bargaining purposes illegal under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The 2006 Sørensen decision involved a university student losing his job when he refused to pay union membership fees because he opposed the union’s agenda. However, union membership was required for the job application.

In that judgment, the European Court of Human Rights made this interesting ruling about close shop jobs: “…there is little support … for the maintenance of closed shop agreements … and that their use in the labour market is not an indispensable tool for the effective enjoyment of trade-union freedoms.”

As a result, closed shops stopped in 47 Council of Europe countries. The court found little need for closed shops in modern European society since trade unions had become quite strong organizations.

The Evaldsson decision in 2007 dealt more with using union fees on non-bargaining purposes, particularly political ones.

One wonders if Manitoba Hydro will embrace such basic freedoms of association, including the right to not associate.

The union requirement is only one more problem with Manitoba Hydro’s activities.

Manitoba Hydro’s expansion is a slow motion car crash. It is engaging in a plan fraught with risk in one of the province’s greatest economic gambles. Union members may benefit in the short term, but in the longer term, average homeowners will pay the bills for these dam expansions. The markets have vanished and shale gas can produce cheaper power for Manitoba. Manitoba is also seeing a decline in industrial demand with the closure of such facilities as Vale’s Thompson shelter and refinery and Tembec’s Pine Falls paper mill.

So, Manitoba Hydro has too many other problems without this unionization requirement. In general, when it comes to our hydroelectric resources, the company needs to look beyond narrow union interests and act in the public interest.

Manitoba Hydro should respect freedom of association and get with the times. It should follow the example of jurisdictions such as the European Union. Canada is one of the last countries to allow mandatory unionization as a condition of employment. This needs to end.

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