This column will make some angry, and worry others. It’s about the changing scene in labour relations
that is going on around us.
Whether you are up to date on the teachers’ job action and legislation in B.C., or the multiple union
scuffles at Air Canada, there is a changing scene in labour relations.
B.C.’s tumultuous labour relations date from 1877 and again in 1913 when striking coal miners
were confronted by the Army Militia at Nanaimo. In the 1930s, unions across North America
fought and won the legal right to strike — to withhold services from an employer that would not agree
to working conditions and complaints.
The right was initially reserved for private companies, and not available to government employees.
While there remain significant differences province to province, the right to strike was extended to government employees in the 1950s (and later in some cases) by Lester Pearson and others.
Essential services have always been outside these freedoms. However, generally they are
allowed to enter into compulsory arbitration where an independent person can impose terms and conditions of a fair contract.
So, some decades ago we had an understanding that most unions could negotiate and strike if they
felt it necessary. Management had the right, if no contract was in place, to lock out workers. Either
way, the company loses money and workers go without pay. That should be enough to keep the
Recently the federal government (aka the Harper government) has twice cancelled the right of Air
Canada employees to strike or be locked out. This week it passed mediation legislation (which does
not impose a contract).
In years gone by, the role of the federal government in transportation was focused on the railways
where compulsory arbitration was imposed on both parties several times. Likewise it imposed multiple
contracts on the post office.
Now it seems a bit timid — it will interfere with collective bargaining, state the service is too
important to be disturbed, but decline to rule it an essential service, and decline to impose arbitration.
In B.C., the government has been restricting the right of unions to strike since 2001, and again has
“back to work” legislation. Minster of Education George Abbott, one of the B.C. cabinet’s more pragmatic people, has a no win prospect in front of him. Teachers want, amongst other things, a pay raise of 15 per cent. The government says zero per cent — current costs are too high at $8,491/student.
Are teachers an essential service, yes or no? If no, cancel the legislation.
If yes, then impose compulsory arbitration and alert the taxpayer they may be hit with a tax increase
to fund teachers’ salary, benefits and working conditions.
Assuming the B.C. government passes a law that removes the teachers’ rights, it will be taken to
the Supreme Court, struck down and we will continue this charade.
It’s time to get on with some serious restructuring and stop playing silly games.