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Mandatory Membership Requires Significant Common Benefit

Groucho Marx once joked that he would never “join any club that would accept him as a member.” I think a better principle would be to never join any organization that is forcing you to be a member. The Manitoba Beekeepers Associat ion is at tempt ing to force me to join and pay membership fees. I want to briefly outline my reasons for thinking that beekeepers should not be intimidated into supporting an organization that, despite its long history, is currently in disrepute.

As recently as 2002, I was the president of the Manitoba Beekeepers Association. At that time, a group of disgruntled beekeepers was advocating for a return to an “open-border” approach to bee imports from the U. S. These beekeepers were not afraid of expressing themselves in antagonistic terms. After some time, much name-calling, and the eventual overruling of some election results, I resigned my position and did not renew my membership.

Since then, I can tell you that I have very much enjoyed quietly minding my own business and being active in other more productive organizations. I’m sure my critics in the beekeeping industry enjoyed my absence nearly as much as I did. Thus, I was shocked and chagrined to learn that the people who had gone to some lengths to get rid of me were now proposing to compel me back into the MBA.

Since 1987, the Manitoba Beekeepers Association has been operating under the auspices of the Farm Products Marketing Act, which we commonly think of as the commission model of commodity regulation. This legislation has the stated goal of “the effective control, regulation and promotion… by the producer board, of the marketing of…” honey within Manitoba. For 23 years, the MBA had the legal authority to act as commission, but chose to act as a producer organization, with voluntary membership and membership fees.

Beginning March 6, 2009, all Manitoba beekeepers with 50 or more hives have been subject to a fee levied under this act, of $200, plus $0.40 per colony, up to 1,000 colonies. Prior to this date, the Manitoba Beekeepers Association had not used the powers of the FPMA except once in 1986, to establish minimum prices for packed honey. The effect of this levy is that beekeepers are now compelled to join and support the Manitoba Beekeepers Association, whether they agree or not.

The constitution of Canada guarantees freedom of association. There is plenty of legal precedent to establish this right in both the positive and negative sense. That is, you are free to join any group you wish, and you are free to refuse to join any group you abhor.

The right to freedom of association cannot be withdrawn without significant benefit to the general good. In cases where a commission uses its authority to develop a marketing plan that improves market conditions for a commodity, so that there is widespread benefit, such as in a supply management plan, the courts have ruled that the freedom of association can be overridden by the need to make such a plan workable. This makes sense, since a supply management system would be ineffective if participation was voluntary.

In cases comparable to mine, the Supreme Court has overturned compulsory membership in trade unions in cases where the unions do not regulate safety or standards of practice; recognizing that compulsory membership laws are not enforceable if there is no benefit derived from compulsory membership.

In my case, since the MBA doesn’t offer any general benefit, except 23-year-old minimum prices so low they would barely cover the cost of the packaging, I’m sure the court system would not see fit to override my right to freedom of association.

I think that compelling me to join the MBA is not necessary for a general public good, since there are no initiatives undertaken by the MBA that aim to generate any general public goods at all. There is no initiative to establish any quota, pricing or regulatory scheme. The plans outlined by the MBA for promoting honey, funding research and advocating industry issues would not require compulsory membership to be effective.

I have reviewed this matter carefully and have come to the conclusion that the Manitoba Beekeepers Association does not invoke any powers of the Farm Products Marketing Act except the power to exact fees and levies, and the power to impose the minimum price of honey in 1986. In short, the MBA is nothing more than an advocacy group which I do not agree with, and do not care to join or support.

I further believe that the fees proposed by the MBA are arbitrary and unjust. I object to the capping of fees at a particular number of hives. It is also unclear why smaller beekeepers should be exempt from these fees. In my most important marketplace, the St. Norbert Farmers Market, all my competitors are exempt from participation in the MBA because of their lesser colony numbers. I find this objectionable.

In summary, a marketing commission that doesn’t have a marketing plan is an empty shell. It doesn’t deserve my support or my money. The beekeeping industry is currently seriously threatened by invasive pests and diseases. I recommend beekeepers and their association focus on this problem, and not forcing me to join an organization. Phil Veldhuis is a honey producer from Starbuck.

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