A $300,000 court battle over a principle that cost an Ontario community college teacher less than $2 a year could eventually shatter a Canadian labor tradition: donating union money to political and social causes. In a 123-page decision released last week, Ontario Supreme Court Justice John White ruled that the use of compulsory union dues for purposes other than collective bargaining violates guarantees in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982. Mervyn Lavigne, the 58-year-old Haileybury, Ont., teacher and former federal Liberal candidate who launched the court action against the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) last December, called the decision “a great stride for the freedom of the individual.” But union leaders questioned the ruling and said they would carry the fight to the Supreme Court of Canada. Said Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) president Shirley Carr: “We may have lost a battle but we intend to win the war.”
After siding with Lavigne, the judge set a deadline of July 19 for both sides to file written submissions on how he should implement his judgment. But it was unclear at week’s end what effect the decision would have on the Canadian labor movement as a whole. In Ottawa John Fryer, president of the 260,000-member National Union of Provincial Government Employees (NUPGE), said White’s ruling would affect fewer than five per cent of those who pay union dues. But in Toronto, David Somerville, vice-president of the 30,000-member National Citizens’ Coalition (NCC), a conservative group that backs Lavigne and pays his legal bills —which have amounted to $300,000 so far—disputed Fryer’s claim and declared, “They’re doing their best to minimize this.” And the coalition’s president and founder, retired insurance salesman Colin Brown, added, “This proves that in our system the little guy can still get justice even
when he’s up against the power of big unionism.”
Since 1974, when Lavigne joined the Haileybury School of Mines as an engineering instructor, he has been at odds with OPSEU, refusing to join the union that represents the faculty and staff.
Because he was entitled to all compensation and benefits that the union had previously negotiated, Lavigne was compelled to pay dues—$338 last year—under a formula known as “checkoff,” which Supreme Court of Canada Justice Ivan Rand devised in 1946 and which affects 110,000 of 2.2 million union members across the country. But when the union went on strike in October, 1984, Lavigne, who opposed the action, found himself in a peculiar situation: because of a clause in the Colleges Collective Bargaining Act, the school could not pay him when he crossed the picket line to work. And because he was not a union member, he did not qualify for strike pay. Then, when the strike ended, Lavigne protested the fact that almost $2 out of his annual $338 union dues was
donated to causes he opposed—especially the New Democratic Party.
According to Justice White’s judgment, between 1982 and 1984 OPSEU and the labor organizations to which it contributed—NUPGE, the Ontario Federation of Labour and the CLC—donated, in
turn, at least $1.8 million to the NDP, $81,800 to disarmament and peace campaigns and $3,100 to pro-choice abortion groups. Lavigne objected to those contributions as well as to donations being sent to striking British mine workers and to union workers in Nicaragua. White endorsed Lavigne’s claim that the use of part of his union dues for ideological causes violated his freedom of association under the charter.
Because White reserved the details of his remedy for two weeks, there was confusion about the implications of the Lavigne case. Union leatder Fryer said the ruling would apply only to nonmembers
affected by the Rand formula. OPSEU president James Clancy called the decision “fundamentally undemocratic” and said that his union would appeal.
And University of Toronto labor historian Desmond Morton said: “White’s decision is basically wrong. If White’s formula is dictated, we will begin to have a very American labor system, utterly indifferent to social and political purposes.” Now, while Lavigne and the unions await Justice White’s remedy, it is clear that the fate of one of orgaSnized labor’s most cherished traditions
will not be decided until it is dealt with by the Supreme Court of Canada.
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