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It's time for the CAF to unionize: protecting soldiers' rights would not demilitarize the institution.

FOR ALMOST MY entire time in uniform I would never entertain the thought of a unionized Canadian military.

Impulsively, I went along with the prevailing opinion that operational discipline would be compromised in a unionized military with officers like me having their authority challenged to the point of insubordination. Surely, a professional officer and non-commissioned officer corps of the caliber produced by this country would always ensure that the troops were well cared for. A unionized military, on the other hand, conjured up dystopian images of pacifist, rebellious, slovenly soldiers.

However, having been on the receiving end of conspicuously bad leadership during the final three years of my service, combined with my current civilian work in a unionized workplace, my perspective on military unionization has since changed.

Unionization, if prudently carried out, will not in any way "de-militarize" our Forces. Instead, a unionized military will provide solid and consistent institutional guarantees that military personnel will have the workplace protection and support that they are legally entitled to, but do not necessarily receive.


There is simply no evidence to support the belief, seemingly held by many in the military and veteran community, that a unionized military will result in insubordination and operational impotence.

By way of example we can refer to our municipal police services, which have been represented by strong unions for many years. Yet, in spite of aggressive union representation, I have never heard complaints that unionization has "pacified" our police and made them reluctant to resort to force in the execution of their duties. Did our unionized police shudder in fear and flee the scene when confronted by protesters at the G20 summit in 2010? On the contrary, as seen in the aftermath of the G20 protests, police unions are quite aggressive in defending their members against accusations of using too much force.

Certainly, as with police and fire services, a unionized military would be categorized as an essential service; meaning, among other things, that the collective bargaining process would not include the right to strike. As with police and fire services, it would be safe to assume that some form of binding arbitration would be the point of last resort should contractual negotiations reach an impasse.

For better or for worse, this binding arbitration process has been blamed, or praised, for generous pay and benefit increases to existing police and fire services. Take for example the Windsor Fire & Rescue Services, which in late 2013 won through arbitration a retroactive pay increase of 15 per cent as well as a reduction in working hours from 48 to 42 hours per week. Hardly a bad deal in the labour-unfriendly environment of today!


It is not like the Canadian Armed Forces have never encountered unionized militaries. Over the last few decades, Canadian soldiers have frequently served alongside militaries from countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, all of which have strong traditions of military unionization.

But let's focus here on Germany, whose military traditions, technology and professionalism are widely admired by the military and veteran community here in Canada. One strong German military tradition that conservative military thinkers and planners fail to acknowledge is the fact that their soldiers are unionized. As a result, German soldiers have a say in their own affairs, which goes far beyond the acceptable norm in Canada.

Apart from ensuring the welfare of their soldiers, the German military union can openly criticize its government's military decisions. For example, in 2010 the German army union called on its government, not to get it's military out of Afghanistan, but to send more troops to support the several thousand who were already there. In 2012, when German patriot anti-missile batteries were deployed to the Turkish-Syrian border, the soldiers' union demanded that the government provide additional support to ensure that they be protected from weapons of mass destruction.

Imagine, just for a moment, our Canadian military personnel having the legal and political legitimacy to do that!

With examples like this, my mind cannot help but go back to my years as a staff officer in the Canadian Forces, when I frequently encountered senior military officers helplessly rant and rave in private about our troops' lack of equipment and operational support. But, of course, here in Canada we have no union to demand better operational support for our troops on the ground, so we simply have to always make due with what we have. Something we learn to do quite well.

Now that we can be certain that a military union will not demilitarize and pacify our troops, let's now look frankly at what organizational changes it could bring to the CAF.


Seeing to your subordinate's welfare was, and remains, among the most sacrosanct hallmark of military leadership. But the sad reality is that the character, integrity and moral fabric of leadership in this military, as indeed in any military, is not always perfect let alone experienced, knowledgeable and consistent. As I have witnessed first-hand in my civilian career, it is exactly when organizational leadership fails to properly care for their subordinates that the union steps in and ensures that leadership does what it is legally and/or contractually obliged to do.

So where can a military union make its mark in protecting soldiers and their careers from administrative abuse and neglect? As aptly pointed out by Michel Drapeau and Joshua Juneau in the September 2013 issue of Esprit de Corps ("Coexistence and Convergence: The Lawful Formation of a Military Professional Association," Volume 20 Issue 8), there are notable shortcomings and lack of fairness in the process by which career administrative reviews, medical employment limitations, release of medical information, grievances, harassment complaints, summary trial processes, and release procedures are practiced within the CAF.

In the opinion of Drapeau and Juneau, these are among the areas where "the Canadian military fails to ensure that the rights of its members are protected and respected in accordance with traditional [Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom] values, and many other examples where the basic employment rights of soldiers are being ignored or even taken advantage of."


Another myth of unionization that needs to be debunked is that it will prove a disincentive to strong ethical leadership. Those leaders in the Canadian Armed Forces--and they are many--who are sincerely "seeing to their soldiers welfare" and "putting the needs of their soldiers before their own" should have nothing to fear when it comes to a unionized military.

Let's be frank: Would a union, military or otherwise, impede those in charge who are sincerely trying to ensure that individual rights and due process are being applied in the workplace? Indeed, when ethical, caring leadership is present, a unionized military will only affirm and validate what leadership is already doing by providing clear and robust legal avenues, resources and guidelines to help meet needs of the personnel under their authority. Furthermore, well-meaning leaders who might encounter bureaucratic obstacles while trying to help subordinates should, in a unionized military, find a much higher degree of support for their efforts.

On the other side, there is two elements of the Canadian Armed Forces that will certainly have their authority and their method of leadership challenged by military unionization. Who are they? They are the officers and non-commissioned officers in the Forces today who, by circumstance, fear or default, have established their own administrative "fiefdoms" or bully pits within their respective workplace.

Typically, these are the people who abuse their authority, make arbitrary and self-serving decisions, and threaten and harass those who they perceive as a threat. Certainly, in a unionized military, this group will find their management style and their way of making decisions impeded and squashed. Indeed there is no doubt in my mind that such leaders would find it intolerable to serve in a unionized military and will find it necessary to take their leave.

Good riddance.

Caption: Members of Mission Transition Task Force (MTTF) stand on parade for the ceremony of the last flag lowering at Kandahar Airfield (KAF) on December 1,2011. Smol believes "Unionization, if prudently carried out, will not in any way 'de-militarize' our Forces. Instead, a unionized military will provide solid and consistent institutional guarantees that military personnel will have the workplace protection and support that they are legally entitled to, but do not necessarily receive." (cpl Patrick drouin, IMAGERY TECHNICIAN, MTTF HQ, DND)

Caption: ABOVE RIGHT: In February 2013, CWO Thompson (RSM Kabul Military Training Centre Training Advisory Group) welcomed German Brigadier-General Gunter Katz (serving as ISAF spokesperson in Afghanistan) to Camp ALAMO in Kabul. Although countries such as Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Austria have allowed unionization of their military forces in various degrees since the 1960s, Canada and the United States have thus far not permitted it. (CANADIAN FORCES)

Caption: Colonel Ulrich Kirsch, head of Germany's Federal Armed Forces Association, defends the conditions of employment for the Bundeswehr --the unified armed forces of the Federal Republic of Germany as well as both civil administration and procurement authorities. The military association is nearing its 60th anniversary.


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Title Annotation:PERSPECTIVES
Author:Smol, Robert
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Apr 1, 2014
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