Susan Kootnekoff is the founder of Inspire Law, an Okanagan based-law practice. She has been practicing law since 1994, with brief stints away to begin raising children. Susan has experience in many areas of law, but is most drawn to areas in which she can make a positive difference in people’s lives, including employment law. She has been a member of the Law Society of Alberta since 1994 and a member of the Law Society of British Columbia since 2015. Susan grew up in Saskatchewan. Her parents were both entrepreneurs, and her father was also a union leader who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of workers. Before moving to B.C., Susan practiced law in both Calgary and Fort McMurray, AB. Living and practicing law in Fort McMurray made a lasting impression on Susan. It was in this isolated and unique community that her interest in employment law, and Canada’s oil sands industry, took hold. In 2013, Susan moved to the Okanagan with her family, where she currently resides. Photo: Contributed

Kootnekoff: Animal farm, union style

Considering the plight of unionized workers

The recent labour day holiday is an occasion to consider the plight of unionized workers.

George Orwell, in Animal Farm, wrote about hard working farm animals who were treated badly.

Having had enough, they overthrew the humans. They took over the farm, and renamed it Animal Farm. They adopted the seven commandments of animalism, including “All animals are equal” and “Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.”

All was well in the beginning.

After awhile, the leaders: the pigs, started making money through unsavory means. This allowed them to buy whisky, which they declined to share with the others.

The pig leaders’ position improved. They started to walk on two legs, carry whips, and wear clothes.

The seven commandments were consolidated into one: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

In the end, the pigs host the farmers at a dinner party. The other animals are outside looking in. They look from pig to human, and human to pig. Back and forth. They can no longer distinguish pig from human or human from pig.

An analogy could be drawn between this story and some–though not all—unions as they exist today.

Historically, the labour movement contributed to better working conditions, lower hours and improved workplace safety. Many of us still benefit from their early efforts.

Some unions, which labour lawyers may refer to as “focused on numbers” or “business unions” are focused on the union’s own financial position rather than on negotiating strong collective agreements or upholding their members’ rights under those agreements. Workers may refer to these unions as “ISA” unions, “I Stand Alone”, or unions that “fold like a cheap tent” under a load.

Grievances involve hard work, and resources. More grievances may mean less money in the bank. When they are taken on, they may be settled quickly and quietly.

Although a union represents its members, it also has its own self-interest. Its own interest may depart from the interests of its members. This is especially so in the “business” or “ISA” type of union.

If you are a unionized employee who feels your union is not adequately representing you, and want to consult your own lawyer, you may find it hard to find one. Generally, an employment lawyer’s focus is on legal issues in non-unionized workplaces. Although labour lawyers focus on legal issues arising from unionized workplaces, they often represent unions, rather than employees.

Unions can wield enormous power over their members. A union member who is let down by his or her union has few remedies. He or she could make a complaint with the Labour Relations Board. However, unlike in some other provinces, the chance of succeeding in B.C. is extremely low.

Some have raised questions about regulatory capture and questioned whether the LRB is acting in the interests of employers or unions rather than in the public interest.

While recent legislative amendments have made positive improvements for workers, the ISA union attitude remains alive and well.

To make matters worse, courts can be extremely quick to side with a union. This is a whole other topic. Unfortunately, this is an area in which workers all too often find themselves left out in the cold, without meaningful recourse.

Like the animals on Animal Farm, union members may feel that they are outside looking in. They may look from union to employer, and employer to union. Back and forth. They may no longer be able to distinguish union from employer or employer from union.

Unionized workers, if you feel wronged by your employer, contact your union immediately. Collective agreements usually specify extremely tight deadlines within which you must act. If you sense that the union is not supporting you, or is not acting diligently, seek legal advice immediately.

Lawyers who represent unionized employees are rare, but they do exist. Keep looking until you find one.

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