February 11 2010
I’ve spoken before about how the employer strategy of forcing an employee vote on the employer’s last offer in collective bargaining is a risky one for employers. It failed recently for the employer at OC Transpo, for example.
The Ontario Labour Relations Act (section 42) permits employers to ask the government to conduct a vote of the employer’s offer, but only once. This strategy would be used when the employer believes the employees will accept its offer, but the union bargaining team is refusing to put the employer’s offer to a vote. I noted during the Toronto city workers’ strike that opting for a final offer vote is risky because often the workers’ side with the union’s bargaining team and reject the employer’s offer. This then raises the expectation within the union membership that the employer will have to come back with something “more”, plus it really pisses of the union’s bargaining team, who perceive this strategy has an attempt to undermine the union’s legitimacy in the eyes of the workers.
Nevertheless, the colleges opted for this route last week, and in the vote, the employer’s offer appears to have been narrowly accepted by the college teachers. And I mean NARROWLY: 51%! But that may not be the end of it, since the margin of victory was 210 votes and there remained some 300 uncounted ballots mailed in. So the strike may be averted at the colleges, which is good, but there may also be some pretty unhappy employees, and an obvious split among the membership as to whether the deal is a fair one. The employer here was likely emboldened to take the forced vote step by the unusual fact that the union barely won the strike vote (only 57% voted to strike). Usually unions have an easier time getting a high level of support in a strike vote, because a strong strike vote puts pressure on the employer to come forward with its best offer. A low strike vote, like this one, undermines the union’s bargaining power.