November 16, 2015
Back in February of this year, I wrote a post describing the background to the horrible 22 month labour dispute at Crown Holdings, a American corporation that set
out to dramatically cut its employees pay and benefits at a beer can factory in Toronto that had won production awards and despite huge profits. The company’s demands for deep concessions from its long service employees and its desire to cherry pick which employees would have a right to return to work provoked one of the longest labour disputes in Canadian history.
The strike ended in July, but no one came away happy about the outcome, except maybe the employer. I say “maybe”, because the company appears to have a policy of not speaking to media or even having the decency to respond to inquiries [every media story I have read or heard ends with “the company did not respond to our inquiries”].
CBC Radio has produced a nice little documentary on the strike using the voices of the workers and the union representatives (but of course not the company, which did not respond to repeated attempts by the CBC for a comment).
Here is the link to the documentary
As I mentioned in my earlier post, the strike itself demonstrated a series of interesting policy issues about how we govern labour disputes in Canada. I noted that long strikes are extremely rare. About 96% of bargaining ends without a strike or lockout, and most work stoppages that do occur end quickly. However, when a wealthy company decides that it wants deep concessions and that it will not back down, the scene is set for long stoppages like that which occurred at Crown.
Our laws assist employers who take this approach in several ways. Firstly, Ontario law permits employers to hire replacement workers to do the work of striking workers, which in turn eliminates or reduces any financial losses that can be inflicted by the strikers. The whole point of a strike is to inflict financial harm on employers in order to pressure the employer to reach a settlement. Without that pressure, the effect of a strike is neutralized. Here, Crown used replacement workers throughout the strike, busing them in and out past the picketers each day. This obviously creates huge resentment and bitterness from the strikers that lasts long after the work stoppage is over.
Secondly, our laws only protect strikers’ jobs for the first 6 month of a strike (see Section 80 of the OLRA), after which the employer is not required to rehire the strikers. This provides employers with a huge bargaining tool as the work stoppage approaches and then surpasses the 6 month mark, as happened here. After 6 months, the union needs to bargain a return to work rather than have the right guaranteed by statute.
Thirdly, our laws provide no effective tool to either employer or union to force the other side to interest arbitration to end a long work stoppage. The law allows for the parties to “agree” to send a dispute to arbitration to end a work stoppage, but not for one side to send the dispute to arbitration against the wishes of the other (See section 40). I have advocated in the past for a law that permits either side to refer a bargaining dispute causing a work stoppage to binding interest arbitration after 60 days (or we could debate the length). Such a law would rarely be utilized, but in the unusual situation of a long, bitter work stoppage, it would give the parties an option to get back to work and get busy on rebuilding the relationship. Families and communities are torn apart by work stoppages that last months and months. Just listen to the CBC documentary and you will see what I mean.
Issues for Discussion
1. After listening to the CBC story, do you come away feeling that either the workers, the union, or the employer is most to blame for the long strike and bitter outcome?
2. Ontario is presently studying reforms to Ontario’s labour laws. Do you think that these reforms should include news laws applicable specifically to unusually long strikes like the one at Crown Holding?
3. If so, what reforms do you think the government should introduce? A ban on replacement workers? Repeal of the 6 month limit on the job rights of strikers? A right to access interest arbitration after a work stoppage lasts beyond a specified duration? Something else?
4. Why do you think the government decided to protect strikers’ jobs for only 6 months?