Caterpillar Inc. has a long, long history of terrible labour relations. Remember in 2009 when French workers took Caterpillar executives hostage. Surveys taken back then showed the French public generally supported the strategy of boss-napping (no one was harmed, but executives weren’t allowed to leave). The International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF), an umbrella organization of unions that represent workers mostly in metal-related industries established just last year a global network of unions representing Caterpillar. The company was singled out because of its size, but also because of its persistent aggressive anti-union policies. It will be interesting to see if this network mobilizes in any way to aid workers in the Canadian dispute.
So it comes as no surprise to see the company locking out 465 workers at its London, Ontario locomotive factory. This time, the company is demanding a 50% paycut from workers, among other concessions. The company says that workers at its facility that do similar work in Illinois earn about half of what the Canadian workers’ earn. The not so subtle implication is that it might not make sense to continue with the London facility unless the Canadians bring themselves down to that level. Its the global race-to-the-bottom in action that has been often predicted. The workers refused and now find themselves locked out. This is a blow not only to the workers’ families, but to the community, and the local economy.
The Import of Labour Relations Nastiness
Don’t expect this to be a short dispute. A regular theme in Canadian labour relations these days is foreign multinational corporations buying Canadian factories and then demanding huge concessions from the workers–see Stelco, see Vale-INCO. See Rio Tinto right now in Quebec, where another 750 employees are presently locked out. And on and on. Caterpillar purchased the Canadian factory in 2008, and was used as a photo op by the Tories back then to show the great benefits of corporate tax cuts.
Professor Harry Arthurs predicted this years ago when he told us to watch out of for the “hollowing out” of corporate Canada in labour relations. As Canadian companies are swallowed up by giant foreign corporations, he predicted that the nasty labour relations practices from abroad would be imported into Canada, and that Canadian governments would increasingly shrug and argue that there was nothing they could do to help Canadian workers due to the straightjacket that politicians will blame on globalization.
Voila! While Canadian governments have shown an amazing propensity of late to intervene in labour disputes when employers have asked for this (think Air Canada, Canada Post, TTC), when employers are prepared to tolerate a long work stoppage in order to achieve their bargaining demands (think the Vaughn transit situation, Stelco, Vale-Inco), governments revert to the line: “this is a private dispute, and it is better to leave it to the parties themselves to work out.” Predictably, that is the line of both the Feds and the Ontario Liberal government in the new Caterpillar situation.
But, really, what do you think governments can do in these situations?
Well, if governments can order an end to a strike or a lockout in some cases (Air Canada, TTC, Canada Post), then they can do the same in these other cases. The dispute could be ordered to interest arbitration. But is that something that should be encouraged? Do we actually want more government intervention in labour relations, or less?
Interestingly, unions often argue that back-to-work legislation and interest arbitration are a violation of the Charter’s protection of freedom of association. But governments ignore that argument all the time, and so far, the courts have not ruled back-to-work legislation unconstitutional. The question at hand is whether the labour movement should change course and begin to speak favourably about legislated interest arbitration? Should unions argue in favour of an amendment to labour statutes that would permit access to interest arbitration at the behest of either party? Right now, interest arbitration is usually available in Canada only if both parties agree to it, and there is often one party that believes that they are better off enduring a strike or lockout. Which party that is depends on the circumstances. The ATU lambasted the Liberals from legislating ends to transit strikes against the TTC, but now is asking to be legislated back in the Vaughn work stoppage. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (then Counsellor Ford) argued strongly for back to work legislation during the great garbage strike of 2009, but he will take the polar opposite position later this winter when he locks out the same union–watch for him arguing how the Liberals most definitely should not intervene in the city’s labour relations then.
A neutral interest arbitration system–one in which the legislation does not impose the terms of a collective agreement or hamstring the arbitrator’s common sense judgement–is perhaps something unions may have to learn to accept as a valid legislative tool. The recent Conservative interventions in work stoppages imposed an arbitration model that was not neutral, but blatantly one the side of the employers. That model should be strongly resisted. However, many unions already accept neutral interest arbitration as a reasonable substitute for the right to strike. As noted above, the union in the Vaughn transit strike has called for interest arbitration and government intervention. The CAW and other unions have bargained deals that require interest arbitration rather than a right to strike or lockout. The unions representing City of Toronto workers will no doubt be supportive of back to work legislation once they’ve been lockout out by the City this winter, but the City (employer) this time will not want the Liberals to intervene.
The point is that it is becoming difficult for unions to argue both sides of the coin: either governments should stay out of labour relations, or they should sometimes intervene. If it is the latter, then when is intervention appropriate? Is it only when the employer is in a position of employer and is demanding concessions from workers? I doubt very much that position will win the labour movement much public or political support. Therein lies the challenge: What is it about Caterpillar’s position that makes government intervention appropriate in this case? Is it that we think its demands are unreasonable? If that is the test that justifies government intervention–unreasonableness of demands–then we are asking politicians to weigh in on the merits of bargaining positions. That seems like a scary idea to me.
What do you think?
Should the labour movement call for greater use of back-to-work legislation and neutral interest arbitration in cases of employer lockouts? Is this a dangerous, slippery slope for workers?
Should governments intervene and order back to work legislation in cases like that involving Caterpillar?