Union Democracy and Our Loss of Innocence

By Geoff Bickerton, Canadian Dimension, November/December 2002

Trade-union leaders have tough jobs and huge responsibilities. No doubt about it. Often, in bargaining, they have to go before their memberships and ask them to go on strike without any guarantee of success. When the contract has been negotiated, the membership usually looks to the leadership for advice whether or not to accept the offer. In grievance arbitration members need to know they are receiving the best possible representation, be it from a union rep or a lawyer provided by the union. Trade-union leaders also run large operations, with facilities and staff and contracts, lawyers' contracts, computer companies and all sorts of other service providers. Usually the leadership has received no formal training in office administration. They rely on their staff, and they learn as they go.

Union Democracy and Our Loss of Innocence

Recently there have been several news articles concerning the election practices of Sid Ryan, the high-profile leader of CUPE's Ontario Division who last year ran unsuccessfully for the position of CUPE national secretary-treasurer. It appears Ryan's campaign accepted large contributions, amounting to many thousands of dollars, from a roofing contractor and a computer-consulting firm. The roofing company had done previous work at the CUPE National headquarters in Ottawa, and the computer consultants shared a contractual relationship with CUPE National at the time the donations were made. The donations were arranged by a staffperson—who has since been fired and who is grieving his dismissal—working in the national secretary-treasurer's office. To make matters worse, the roofing company has stated that, in exchange for the donation to Ryan's campaign, it received a kickback from CUPE National even greater than its donation. The matter is being investigated by the police.

Both Ryan and his campaign manager Brian O'Keefe, secretary-treasurer of CUPE Ontario Division, have stated they did not know anything about the alleged kickback. Neither of them deny, however, being aware that these companies made large donations to the campaign.

What is striking about this sad story is that, with the exception of the issue of the kickback of CUPE funds to the contractors for work they never did, this whole scenario of taking donations from contractors did not break any CUPE rules, because the union has no rules concerning election spending and receipt of gifts from contractors. And make no mistake: CUPE is no worse than any other union.

There is no reason to assume that receiving large gifts and donations from contractors is normal practice, within CUPE or elsewhere in the movement. Although the practice of taking money from contractors may not be prevalent, the lack of rules is a problem. And it is high time to fix it—within CUPE, and within other unions and labour bodies. CUPE has begun the process by establishing an elections task force charged with recommending new election-conduct rules. That is a start, but it doesn't go nearly far enough.

The union movement demands that employers, especially public-sector employers, require high standards concerning the awarding of contracts and the application of rules. For years unions have fought hard against any and every form of employer favouritism, nepotism and patronage. But the credibility of our unions and their leadership depends upon our own actions.

Workers have a right to know their money is being spent wisely and fairly. They also have a right to know that decisions being taken on their behalf concerning the awarding of contracts are being done on the basis of quality and prices, not favouritism and debt repayment.

There need to be clear guidelines concerning what role, if any, staff can play in organizing financial support for candidates. If staff are supposed to be neutral, there should be rules to that effect. The issue of gifts from individuals and companies in contractual relationships with CUPE also needs to be examined. Is it acceptable for elected officials or staff reps to take gifts from lawyers and others they may work with?

At the very least, there should be full transparency, so those in authority know about the financial relationships that exist between those providing services to the union and the union offiials responsible for selecting the service providers.

Obviously there need to be rules concerning elections. Running for a national position in CUPE or other national unions requires plenty of money to pay the great expenses of large mailings and travel. We need rules to ensure that incumbent leaders are not unfairly advantaged by their ability to campaign while traveling on union business. We also need to ensure that no candidate will ever feel it necessary to take money from roofers, computer consultants and anyone else engaged in a contractual relationship with the union.

There can be no doubt that the publicity around the corporate donations and kickbacks have hurt the reputation of all the persons associated with them, as well as that of CUPE itself. There is an opportunity, now, for creating new rules and transparent practices. If such safeguards are the result, our temporary loss of innocence will be more than worth it.