Is it time for Canada’s military to unionize?
Throughout my military career and beyond, any talk of a military association, or union, as an organized contract-negotiating body representing the rank and file was dismissed as “absurd” — often prompting images of out-of-control, pot-smoking, pacifist, insubordinate soldiers defying orders.
Yes, our military may serve next to unionized, professional, sober municipal and provincial police, the Coast Guard, Canadian Border Service Agency and the Canadian Communications Security Establishment, to name a few. But that is beside the point, apparently.
Equally irrelevant, it seems to detractors, is the fact our Armed Forces serve overseas alongside the unionized militaries of countries such as Germany and France.
But are initiative such as that of Ottawa lawyer and retired colonel Michel Drapeau to draw up a petition for a Military Professional Association of Canada a radical step into the unknown? Or are they a longoverdue nod to western democratic culture and military reality?
The ultimate decision to create a military professional association will have to come from the rank and file. Do the soldiers, sailors and air personnel feel they deserve a collective legal voice over working conditions, rights when disabled, family and spousal benefits, grievances and career progression?
Or should we continue to leave ultimate responsibility for caring for the rank and file to the 20-something lieutenant just out of university or the pedantic staff-officer captain or major focused on promotion and determined not to upset the colonel?
Before any informed decision can be made, negative and factually incorrect perceptions of a military professional association need to be identified and shot down.
• A professional military association does not and never will be about our military having the right to strike. As with police, fire and border services, a unionized military would have to instead move to mediation and arbitration if contract negotiations reached an impasse.
• Military unionization is never intended to give military personnel the right to refuse a lawful operational combat order. To do so would not only be a crime under the National Defence Act but also defeat the whole purpose of a military union, which is to work within, and not against, operational objectives of the organization. Unionized firefighters are not opposed to fighting fires. Unionized police are not opposed to fighting crime. Unionized operating room nurses want surgery to be a success.
• Having a professional military association would not turn its members into pacifists. By way of comparison, we don’t have any concerns that aggressive and outspoken unions representing police have rendered them reluctant to draw their weapons. If anything, police unions have sometimes been blamed for protecting and rationalizing the actions of overly aggressive police officers.
• When discussing a military association with serving officers and veterans, the conversation often moves to previous encounters with individual, allegedly incompetent unionized European military personnel. I do not doubt those singled-out cases omight be true. But was that a product of their military union or individual shortcomings and that of their commanders? Is our non-unionized uniform military an incompetence-free zone?
Nonetheless, perhaps perhaps our infantry soldiers, sonar operators, port inspection divers and communication research operators, to name a few, are not intelligent or mature enough to find a professional balance between collective professional empowerment and their operational combat duties.
Robert Smol served for more than 20 years in the Canadian Forces. He is an educator and writer in Toronto. [email protected]