The Facts on Unifor’s Decision to Leave the CLC

On January 17, 2018, Unifor announced it was leaving the Canadian Labour Congress. Within hours of that decision, Unifor had started a concerted campaign to raid the members of UNITE HERE Local 75 in Toronto. It subsequently emerged that Unifor hired the former president of Local 75, Lis Pimentel, and a number of staff from that union. Sister Pimentel and her staff presumably arrived at Unifor with membership lists and other information necessary for Unifor to steal hundreds if not thousands of members from Local 75.

Unifor claims that this decision was a “principled one.” Since that decision was made, Unifor has issued a range of articles, letters and blogs in a desperate attempt to mislead the Canadian labour movement and its allies into thinking that this decision is something other than what it is: a blatant attempt to boost Unifor's membership by attacking and raiding the members of another union.

None of Unifor’s justifications for this conduct withstand even the most cursory examination. Unifor’s public statements on this issue have been rife with misleading and dishonest assertions. It is time to state the real facts surrounding this decision.

This decision is not about protecting workers from attacks from U.S. unions

First, Unifor and its president have repeatedly claimed that this dispute is about “attacks on workers from U.S.-based unions.” This is a complete fabrication. Unite Here local 75 has been divided and dysfunctional for many months. The executive of the local was badly split. Allegations of harassment and racism were making their way through the local. Many of the executive members wanted President Lis Pimentel to depart.

Faced with this division and dysfunction, UNITE HERE decided to place the local into trusteeship and they appointed a trustee to try and get the local functioning properly again. The trustee is a Canadian UNITE HERE official from Alberta, Ian Robb.

All unions have provisions in their constitution that permit the parent union to place locals into trusteeship when they are not functioning properly. Unifor has such a provision, and Unifor has used it. This issue has nothing to do with the rights of Canadian workers or American unions; it has to do with a divided local union that was not capable of governing its affairs.

This decision is not about workers’ choosing their union

Second, Unifor claims that it is standing up for workers’ right to choose their union. Again, this empty assertion ignores the facts.

If, in fact, the members of Local 75 had wanted to change unions there are a range of ways that can happen. The members of Local 75 can apply under Article 4 of the CLC Constitution to change unions. No such application has been filed. Another option is for the Canadian locals to try and break away their parent union. Again, there is no suggestion that there is membership support for this course of action.

What happened here, as with the ATU Local 113 one year ago, is that an embattled Local Union president (Lis Pimentel) who had lost control of her local, was hired by Unifor in the hope that she could bring information and members with her. Then Unifor began to raid UNITE HERE Local 75. This has nothing to do with members choosing their union.

This decision is not about Canadian workers wanting to break away from international unions

Third, Unifor cloaks its raiding ambitions as an issue of an American union attacking Canadian workers. Ironically, Lis Pimentel, who Unifor hired to raid Local 75 members, is an American. There is no evidence that the Canadian branch of UNITE HERE was seeking to leave the international union based in the U.S. From time to time unions (such as the CAW many decades ago) do split away from their parent union. But there is no evidence that there was any desire to do that here. And, moreover, that is not what has happened. What has happened is that Unifor hired a number of disaffected staff to raid another union.

Unifor and Jerry Dias have repeatedly claimed that Canada is the only country to allow unions based in other countries to organize its workers. Again, this is patently false. U.K.-based unions have members in the Republic of Ireland, to name one example.

The truth is that since the very beginning of the Canadian labour movement, international unions have had a strong presence in Canada. This is based on the history that U.S.-based unions came north to organize Canadian workers in the period just before and after the Second World War.

There was a period in the ’70s and ’80s when nationalism was in vogue on the Canadian left and a number of unions (including the CAW) left their international unions. However, over the last 25 years we have largely seen an end to this trend.

Unifor claims that more and more unionized workers in Canada belong to Canadian-based unions. Again, this is extremely misleading. This trend is almost entirely explained by the growth in public-sector unionization, where all unions are Canadian. It is also explained by the drop in private-sector union membership.

This decision is not about alleged failures of the CLC constitution

Unifor claims that it had to leave the CLC and raid UNITE HERE because the CLC’s constitution was not functioning to allow workers to democratically change unions. This also is completely false.

Article 4 of the CLC constitution allows “members” of unions to apply to the CLC if they feel they are not being adequately represented by their current union. The current provision was placed in the constitution in 2011 (with Unifor's support) and it has worked well. The CLC reports that since 2011 it has received 46 complaints from union members, and that 45 of those complaints have been resolved to the satisfaction of the parties.

What Unifor really wants, apparently, is a provision in the CLC constitution which would allow local union presidents to take their members with them whenever they are having a political dispute with their parent union.

In February 2017, ATU Local 113 president Bob Kinnear was also having a dispute with his parent union. He applied under the CLC constitution (without any evidence of membership support) to take his members to Unifor. Unifor welcomed him with open arms. However, his attempt failed, in part because the CLC constitution was never intended to be a mechanism to allow local union leaders to shop for a new union.

And so here we are with Lis Pimentel and UNITE HERE Local 75 – she has a dispute with her parent union and she gets hired by Unifor. Again, this has nothing to do with the CLC constitution, which is working just fine.

One other point on the CLC – Unifor has told its members, locals and activists that they should be able to remain in provincial labour federations and labour councils, despite the clear constitutional provisions to the contrary. Unifor claims there is a precedent for this position. Again this is false.

As CLC president Hassan Yussuff notes in his letter to Unifor, there has never been a situation where an affiliate chose to abandon its membership in the CLC, but was still able to remain an active participant in federations or labour councils.

This decision is about one thing only: raiding another union for its members

At a time when union density in the private sector in Canada is dropping, unions cannot afford to spend valuable resources raiding already unionized workers. Indeed, dropping union density was one of the stated rationales for Unifor’s very formation in 2013.

And despite all of the bluster coming from Jerry Dias and Unifor – it is clear that they have decided to spend their resources and efforts on raiding the members of other unions. Unifor’s decision to pit union against union is a breach of the central commitment that each union makes in solidarity with the rest of the labour movement.

True solidarity means standing with workers and the labour movement to organize the unorganized and negotiate better contracts. This decision by Unifor strikes at the heart of both of these objectives.

The conduct of Unifor and Jerry Dias serves only to weaken and undermine solidarity in the Canadian labour movement. And that’s the whole truth.

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