Want to fix military culture? Let junior ranks join a union

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said last week that “everything is currently on the table” when it comes to improving workplace culture within the Canadian Armed Forces.

Good.

Because something that deserves consideration, perhaps more than ever before, is allowing the military’s rank and file to join a labour union.

Service members in a number of NATO countries — including France, the Netherlands and Denmark — are represented by unions or professional associations. The idea of organizing military personnel has also gained political traction in the U.K.

Truth be told, most CAF members already work in a union environment.

The vast majority of civilian employees within the Department of National Defence are organized. They work alongside people in uniform at headquarters, bases and other military establishments.

Yet while the Supreme Court ruled six years ago that RCMP members have the right to collective bargaining, no such entitlement currently exists for the nation’s soldiers, sailors and air personnel.

With DND in crisis, and the last two men to be named chief of the defence staff under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct, now seems like a good time to consider giving military personnel the right to bargain collectively.

A union would act as a bulwark against harassment and abuse within a chain of command that is too often a cult of personality devoted to serving the whims of the commander, rather than serving the command itself.

A practical example of how members’ interests are neglected can be found in the grievance process, which requires members to submit their grievances through their commanding officer and leaves representation for those filing complaints up to that same commanding officer.

In theory, this is fine. But in practice, it is a spectacularly flawed system.

The commanding officer is often the subject of the grievance or, at the very least, has a vested interest in its outcome.

Notwithstanding any assistance provided by their appointed representatives, members are largely alone in their fight because joint grievances are expressly forbidden.

If grievances could be filed jointly, and if those filing them had support from a union or professional association, CAF members would be in a much better position to prevent and address workplace wrongdoing.

It’s important to note that, even if they were allowed to unionize, many rank-and-file members would be skeptical about the idea.

Organizers would have to work diligently — and likely for a lengthy period of time — to achieve success.

And, even if the organizing drive proved successful, the realities of military service would limit the union’s authority.

The chain of command would still be sacred, especially in operational settings. Members would still be required to obey all lawful orders, and regular force members would still be subject to involuntary deployments, postings and training assignments.

What’s more, given the nature of their jobs and the oaths they’ve sworn, CAF personnel would not be permitted to strike.

Still, there are many potential benefits to organizing Canada’s military — especially for those in the junior ranks, who are most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

If the government truly wants to improve military culture and promote the interests of service members, a CAF union should most definitely be “on the table.”

(NOTE: Scott Costen was a member of the Canadian Armed Forces for 16 years.)