Ever wonder why governments rush to pass back to work legislation sometimes, but then do nothing during other work stoppages?
The Federal government passes back to work legislation the second employees of a private non-essential corporation (Air Canada) threaten to strike, and days after Canada Post locks out its workers. The Ontario government passes a law banning all strikes and lockouts at the TTC because every single TTC employee is “essential”, including not only train and bus drivers, but garbage collectors, mechanics, and ticket collectors as well. Meanwhile, the strike at Vaughn’s transit companies languishes on.
What can explain governments’ selective intervention in labour disputes?
The politicians will tell you that it has everything to do with how the work stoppage will impact on society and the economy. That’s part of the story, but also an oversimplification of what is happening. For example, there was no evidence presented at all that the lockout by Canada Post was having a serious negative impact on Canadian society or the economy. Likewise, Air Canada is in a highly competitive industry and there are loads of alternatives to flying Air Canada. The government produced zero evidence in support of its claim that a short strike at Air Canada would pose a serious threat to economic recovery.
A TTC strike does cause major inconvenience to Torontonians, though I highly doubt the bald claims made by politicians about its ‘economic’ impact. But the inconvenience to Vaughn transit users is no less. Yet the transit strike in Vaughn is allowed to continue for weeks without any expression of concern by the Ontario government. When 900 workers were locked out at Stelco in Hamilton for 11 months by an American steel company trying to force employees to accept major concessions, not a government intervention in sight. This point was made recently by Jim Stanford in his Globe and Mail column, where he noted that the Stelco lockout had significantly greater negative impact on the Canadian economy than the Canada Post lockout or than would a short Air Canada strike. Likewise at Vale-Inco in Sudbury, where a work stoppage involving a Brazilian-owned corporation intent on rolling back employee benefits dragged on for nearly a year until the union eventually gave in. No talk of government intervention there either.
One variable that seems to play a significant roll is whether the employer supports back to work legislation or interest arbitration, which is the process used by governments when they prohibit a work stoppage. Air Canada, Canada Post, and the TTC (once its Board was taken over by Mayor Ford supporters) all supported back to work legislation, and they got it. U.S. Steel (Stelco) and Vale-Inco did not want interest arbitration, since their goal was to achieve significant concessions from employees, something that employers rarely achieve in interest arbitration. In the Vaughn transit situation, the unions have proposed interest arbitration, which would end the strike immediately if the employers agreed. However, once again, the foreign-owned employers involved in the dispute have no interest in interest arbitration. Why? Because the union is fighting for closer parity with other regional transit systems, and the principle of parity is a factor that interest arbitrators look at. The transit employers are quite happy paying their employees less than other area transit workers, so they would prefer to let the strike drag on as long as it takes for the workers to cave.
Here’s what the spokesperson for VIVA said about why the bus company won’t agree to the unions’ proposal to go to interest arbitration:
We feel it’s far more effective for both sides to sit down and negotiate directly rather than bring in a third party that doesn’t really have the stake in it that the union or the company has.
Hhhmmm. Wonder why Air Canada, Canada Post, and the TTC don’t believe that negotiating against the backdrop of strikes and lockout threats is the best way to go?
Prediction for the Upcoming City of Toronto Bargaining?
So, what should we predict about the impending work stoppage involving City of Toronto employees this winter?
Well, the City of Toronto (the employer) wants to win substantial concessions from the union. The employer wants to eliminate a clause in the collective agreements that requires it to find alternative work for employees who lose their job due to contracting out. Obviously the workers won’t be happy about giving that up, and an interest arbitrator is unlikely to award the employer a breakthrough win like that. Therefore, we can predict that the Employer will have little interest this time in interest arbitration or back to work legislation this time around.
Suddenly, Rob Ford will be a big supporter of the right to strike and lockout, and will be a vocal opponent of back to work legislation. Recall that Ford was one of the councillors most critical of the Liberal government back in 2009 for not legislating striking City workers back to work (watch him in the video in this report). Almost certainly his position will be a complete reversal this time round. He will be absolutely opposed to the Liberal government introducing back to work legislation to end what will probably be an employer lockout beginning sometime in the early new year. Employers and anti-collective bargaining politicians like Rob Ford support the right to strike and lockout when that route is perceived as the best way for the employer to achieve its bargaining aims.
Should the Liberals order the Vaughn transit labour dispute to interest arbitration, even though the employers don’t want that?
Will you support back to work legislation if the City of Toronto locks out its employees this winter?