Dr. Dawg

Collective bargaining in Canada: a reprise

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I see that I am not alone in regarding Lisa Raitt’s assault on unions as a grim harbinger of the future of labour relations in Canada.

Here’s the Globe&Mail’s Rod Mickleburgh:

Ms. Raitt is doing her best to accelerate her [Labour Canada] portfolio’s demise. The right to free collective bargaining and the right to strike have been fundamental in this country for more than 70 years. With Ms. Raitt in charge, those rights appear headed for the trash can.

But more to the point, perhaps, here’s today’s Globe & Mail lead editorial, perhaps surprising to some: “Stop meddling in Air Canada’s labour dispute.”

The Harper government cannot be accused of any desire for a command economy or for a series of five-year plans. Occasionally, though, its decrees resemble those of a state-socialist regime. Instead, Air Canada and its flight attendants should be allowed to sort out their problems by themselves.

Never mind the “state-socialist” rhetorical drive-by: there are darker historical references to be made. The point is that the Bay Street boys and girls whose interests are so capably served by the Globe are not happy. Why not?

Collective bargaining in North America is the product of more than a century of compromise. Samuel Gompers’ accommodation with capitalism in the late 1890s—so-called “business unionism”—remains today’s favoured model and philosophy. Gompers hated socialism, and bitterly fought his rivals in the labour movement, the International Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”), who saw unionism as a potentially revolutionary enterprise.

Gompers was successful in destroying the radical wing of the movement. In Canada the smashing of the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 marked the end of any serious labour challenge to Gompers’ collaborationist approach.

Over many years various labour relations regimes came into being, regulating the conduct of the parties in an attempt to secure labour peace. The notion of labour contracts became normalized, as well as that odd concept, the “legal strike.” Perhaps the most significant compromise in Canada was the establishment of the Rand Formula in 1946, providing an automatic dues checkoff for all members of a bargaining unit: in return, the unions had to provide “fair representation” for those who paid dues but were not members of the union.

What prevails today is a structure of unequal relations, in which laws and governments generally favour employers, either by making unionizing difficult or impossible, or, once unions form, by hemming in the right to strike or by suspending that right with punitive back-to-work legislation. It’s a soft trap, in other words: unionized employees do significantly better in wages, benefits and workplace rights than non-unionized workers, but this still comes at a price.

The only weapon in the hands of labour against an intransigent employer is the strike. And it sometimes takes a long and bitter one to move forward: workers and their families subsist on meagre strike pay during that entire period. Although their operations are obviously affected, employers usually don’t suffer nearly as much: all they have to do is say no, and many hire scabs (“replacement workers”). That doesn’t tend to improve labour relations, so that Quebec (and for a brief period Ontario) passed anti-scab legislation, again with the object of winning labour peace.

In the public sector scabbing is not legally permitted, but members of the union can, and too often do, cross their own picket lines. Arguably that’s a negative consequence of the Rand Formula: unions as institutions can get a little lazy, not being forced to re-win the hearts and minds of rank-and-file members every month to keep them involved and willing to pay dues. Communications problems develop, and members can become apathetic.

But even when this problem is overcome, it’s hard to bargain seriously with an employer who can use legislation as a last resort. Nevertheless, a strike of even a few days’ duration can be sufficiently disruptive to make managers unwilling to be completely uncompromising at the bargaining table.

It’s a fine balance, in other words, in both the public and the private sectors, and it’s continually being re-tuned.

The point to make is that employers have every bit as much of a stake in the collective bargaining process as labour does. Labour relations regimes are highly complex pieces of machinery that require skill, endurance and dedication to operate. But this isn’t simply bilateral. Oversight bodies like the Canadian Industrial Relations Board (again, not pro-labour by any means, but they have to give at least the appearance of even-handedness) inevitably play a significant role in contract negotiations as well.

Tearing up this fabric of rules, regulations, precedents and tradition, which the Harper regime appears bent on doing, constitutes a serious danger to employers. Unions are already safely enmeshed in that fabric: put another way, they are an integral part of a strongly regulated labour relations system. They cannot, therefore, pose an existential threat to capital, nor even to government operations (the “essential services” designation takes care of the latter).

The Raitt initiatives threaten to replace this intricate and highly evolved structure with a kind of “anything goes” anarchy. Unions, paradoxically, would lose their restraints: once again they could become agents, not merely of social justice, but of social transformation. The strike weapon, as in days of yore, would be used, whether legal or not. At the very least a new balance—one that could conceivably favour workers, not employers—would be struck, after considerable strife.

No wonder employers are nervous. The Harper government, in spite of itself, might be the best friend Canadian labour has ever had.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on October 14, 2011 2:22 PM.

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