This week, backbench Conservative MP Pierre Poilièvre floated a plan to allow individual union members to opt out of paying dues, attacking a central piece of labour protection in Canada known as the Rand Formula. This move is something that should concern everyone, whether you’re a union member or not. It is about reducing the ability of workers, and the unions they form, to stand up to their employers and demand decent wages and working conditions. Coming on the heels of special federal laws to deny workers the right to strike at Air Canada and Canada Post, Canadian workers cannot afford to take this latest threat lightly.

Just what is the Rand Formula?
The term was coined after an award written by Mr. Justice Ivan Rand of the Supreme Court of Canada in 1946. Rand came up with a principle that has since been enshrined in Canada labour law: once a union has been certified to represent employees in a workplace, that union can negotiate a clause for dues to be deducted at source from employees’ pay and remitted to the union. All employees in the bargaining unit are subject to this dues check-off, regardless of their membership status or support of the union.

Why does everyone have to pay? Why isn’t it voluntary?
Once a union is certified, it is responsible under the law for representing all members of the bargaining unit – even those who choose not to join the union or participate in its activities. Because the union is legally and morally responsible for everyone, Rand thought it was appropriate that everyone should participate in funding the union: “I consider it entirely equitable then that all employees should be required to shoulder their portion of the burden of expense for administering the law of their employment, the union contract; that they must take the burden along with the benefit.” The same concept applies to taxes: whether or not you ever get sick or have kids or operate a car, you’re still required to pay taxes to fund hospitals, schools and roads.

Isn’t it anti-democratic? What about my right to choose?
This question has been asked and answered several times, most notably in a unanimous 1991 Supreme Court decision where it was found that the Rand formula doesn’t undermine a citizen’s freedom of association or non-association. Unions are democratic and transparent organizations, and any member can participate in the decision-making process.

What are the advantages and disadvantages?
The most obvious advantage to the union is that it is properly able to finance its operations.

The major advantage on the employer’s side of the equation is that, in return for the security and stability of the dues check-off formula, the union agrees not to strike while the collective agreement is in force, and employees are not required to join the union as a condition of employment. It is more than curious that none of the opponents of the Rand Formula mention this element, which is every bit as vital as the dues check-off.

What’s the alternative to Rand?
The phrase that’s used most often is “right to work” (RTW). In a RTW environment, the rights of workers to organize are curtailed or eliminated; where the union exists or has survived, it is responsible for collecting dues directly from workers, and those workers don’t have to pay any dues to benefit from the collective agreement – where one exists at all. The right to fire workers at any time, for any reason or no reason at all, which is really what we are talking about, is viewed by right-wing thinkers as a positive in an entrepreneurial society, but it serves no useful purpose in any environment based on social justice.

Canadian conservatives such as Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, Ontario’s Tim Hudak and now federal Conservative MP Pierre Poilièvre have all floated trial balloons about revisiting the Rand formula, under the guise of creating more “flexibility” in the labour market. What they are really saying is that employers will benefit if workers and their organizations are weakened. Every Canadian worker needs to speak up about this attack on our fundamental rights.