Virtually every union has a constitution which sets out certain rules and standards of behaviour applicable to all members of the union. For example, when the union is on a legal strike, the constitution will almost always prohibit a union member from crossing the picket line to go to work.
What happens when union members are accused of breaking union rules? There is typically a provision in union constitutions for what are known as union “charges,” which can give rise to a trial of a charged union member. If the member is found guilty of violating the constitution, a trial panel (usually consisting of members of the union executive who are not legally trained) has the power to determine guilt and fine the member. The monetary range of fines for offences varies depending on the constitution, but fines from $500 to $5,000 are frequently encountered.
What if the union member refuses to pay a fine? Can a union use the civil courts to enforce the payment of such a fine? Naturally, a union may want to use the civil courts to enforce the fine because the civil courts have a monopoly on enforcement powers. The civil courts have various tools available to enforce the payment of legal judgments, such as the garnishment of wages, the seizure and sale of personal property, and the seizure and sale of real property. The civil courts also have enforcement officers who are empowered to enter premises and forcibly seize personal property and real property to satisfy legal judgments. Administrative tribunals, such as the Ontario Labour Relations Board, or private labour arbitrators, lack these important enforcement powers.
Can unions turn their internal disciplinary fines into legal judgments that are enforceable before the courts? The short answer is no. In most cases, the only way unions can collect internal fines is if the member voluntarily chooses to pay the fine.