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UCP's anti-union crusade cost charities millions
"In their rush to try and stick it to the unions, they didn't pause long enough to realize that this has negative consequences for groups other than unions."
The UCP’s anti-union legislation passed in 2020 has cost charities millions of dollars, according to a new study from the Parkland Institute.
Bill 32, or the Restoring Balance in Alberta’s Workplaces Act, divides union activity into two categories — core functions, such as bargaining and grievance settlement, and non-core functions, which it deems political activity.
Under the new regime the legislation ushered in when it went into effect in August, union members must explicitly opt in for dues used for non-core functions.
This has had unintended consequences for unions’ charitable contributions, says Athabasca University labour studies professor Jason Foster, one of the Parkland study’s co-authors.
“There's been rumblings in the labor movement for a couple of years about the impact of this,” Foster told me.
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The report found Alberta unions cut their charitable donations by 38%, which equals more than $2.5 million. Prior to the legislation going into effect, unions on average spent 2.9% of their budgets supporting community-based organizations, including charities, which adds up to more than $6 million.
These figures were calculated based on a survey the institute sent to unions, asking for financial information on charitable contributions over the past year and what they anticipate they will be moving forward, as well as the size of their membership and total budgetary expenditures.
“This study is an attempt to try and quantify a tangible way in which charitable and community organizations are going to be impacted in terms of their ability to do the good work that they do,” Foster explained.
He added he doesn’t think the UCP set out to cost charities money, but that they were legislation’s collateral damage.
“In their rush to try and stick it to the unions, they didn't pause long enough to realize that this has negative consequences for groups other than unions,” he said. “I don't think they thought this through.”
The broader goal of Bill 32 was “to weaken the effectiveness of unions overall,” Foster said. The problem, he added, is the UCP just doesn’t understand how unions work:
They see unions as these big, bad entities that get in the way of prosperity, and they don't actually pay any attention to how unions operate internally. They're not paying any attention to the fact that unions are generally quite democratic in their overall structures. And they just didn't even think that, boy, unions might actually be involved in their community. They just don’t see unions in that light.
United Nurses of Alberta president Heather Smith told me the report demonstrates that attacking organized labour harms by proxy “those who are the least able to speak up or to have a voice in our society.”
According to the survey, the largest charitable recipients of unions’ beneficence over the past year were organizations focused on healthcare and disability issues, followed by organizations providing local services to specific communities, such as historical foundations and library boards, and then social services organizations, such as food banks and women’s shelters.
“Some of that may go indirectly to our members, but it's for the public good,” Smith told me.
The UCP is trying to make it appear as if unions are surreptitiously giving members’ dues to various causes its membership might not support, or what Premier Jason Kenney dubbed “union boss political activities,” such as environmentalism or opposing efforts to overthrow Venezuela’s government.
But Smith says this is hogwash. All of UNA’s expenditures are approved by members at its annual general meeting. “We've never hesitated to share our budget, talk about our budget and disclose all of our expenditures,” she said.
A June 27 news release from Alberta’s largest union — the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees — says that while none of its members’ dues go towards non-core activities, Bill 32 is an “unnecessary and unjustified interference in the democratically approved processes of the union.”
Tom Hesse, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 — Alberta’s largest private sector union — said it’s shameful that Bill 32 puts charities in a “precarious position”:
Unions and their members should be able to decide for themselves whether to give to charities and which ones without interference from the UCP government. Unions are vibrant organizations that have given back to communities for decades, and Albertans feel rightly cheated by this ill-considered UCP overreach.
CUPE Alberta spokesperson Lou Arab told me it was foreseeable that the UCP’s “zeal to tie unions in knots and red tape” would have broader consequences.
“All spending decisions made by CUPE locals are put to members at regular meetings,” said Arab. “That’s a hell of a lot more democratic and accountable than the UCP is with tax dollars.”
Read the full Parkland Institute study here.
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Edited by Stephen Magusiak
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