Canada

Mister Fix-it

JUDITH TIMSON September 6 1976
Canada

Mister Fix-it

JUDITH TIMSON September 6 1976

Mister Fix-it

BRITISH COLUMBIA

The only outward signs of a man living under prolonged tension were the hands, incessantly snapping and pulling at a rubber band as he spoke. For 2½ years, Paul Weiler, chairman of the British Columbia Labor Relations Board, has presided over one of the most demanding labor challenges in Canada, overseeing and mediating the relentless labor strife that in 1975 gave BC Canada’s worst per capita record of man-days lost.

This year’s quota of labor tumult has ranged from last spring’s 16-day hospital strike to a bitter 18-day stoppage at the Aluminum Co. of Canada’s Kitimat plant and a prolonged strike and lockout involving BC construction workers this summer, with the prospect for more trouble in the construction industry, a continuing supermarket shutdown and a probable strike on the BC ferries this fall. Throughout it all,

Weiler, a former law professor at Toronto’s Osgoode Hall, has brought to his work a sense of scholarly detachment and fairness that has earned him the respect of both labor and management. Nor has he let his arduous job wear him down. He has developed, he says cheerfully, “a very high pain threshold—for the other fellow’s pain.”

Weiler also has going for him what he considers to be the most progressive labor code in North America—a code that emerged largely from a flurry of legislation, enacted by former premier David Barrett’s New Democratic Party government. What makes Weiler’s board different from any other in Canada is that it has powers to handle all aspects of labor relations—including those formerly given over to the courts. Armed with this kind of clout, the board has been able to act in decisive and, often, novel ways. Last June, for example, the board helped to cool tempers at Kitimat by preventing Alcan from dismissing wildcat strikers. During July’s hospital strike, the board gave residents and interns the right to form a union, and took the unusual step of designating which hospital services were to be considered essential during the strike.

One of the trickiest challenges to confront Weiler blew up this summer at Pacific Press, the company that owns the province’s two major daily newspapers, the morning Province and the afternoon Vancouver Sun. After almost a year of negotiations, Pacific Press’s 1,400 employees had ratified a contract negotiated for them by the Joint Council of Newspaper Unions, only to find the company was refusing to pay the agreed 16% increase on the grounds that it would contravene the fed-

eral Anti-Inflation Act. Instead, Dave Stinson, general manager of Pacific Press, offered the 8.3% allowable under the AntiInflation Board’s guidelines and promised to go to Ottawa and “do my best” to get the full 16%. The unions held out for the full increase, retroactive to November 1. With the two sides stalemated, the newspapers ceased publication, the victims first of work stoppages organized mainly by angry pressmen and then subject to closure by Pacific Press.

Enter Weiler, who in his usual understated way allowed that there had been a “misunderstanding” at Pacific Press. However, he firmly supported the company’s right to withhold half of the 16% increase that would subject it to AIB fines of up to four million dollars. On August 20, his board orchestrated a return to work in which, said a board member, “both parties bled a little.” The employees were granted, retroactive to November 1, only the 8.3%

increase, with the remaining 8% contingent upon an AIB hearing expected in October. In addition, each employee was fined 1 '/2 days’ pay for taking part in work stoppages. The company, on the other hand, was forced to abandon its plans to sue the unions in an attempt to recover some of the one million dollars it lost during shutdown. What Weiler considers important about the settlement is that for the first time explicit reasons were given explaining why a provincial labor board could not order a firm to honor a collective agreement that seemed to be in violation of a federal law.

Whenever he goes back east, Weiler likes to tell his friends that if they want to see the future of industrial relations in the country “they should come out to British Columbia.” It’s all there, he says—the push of middle management professionals to unionize, the growth of the trade union movement and the surprisingly high num-

ber of employers who are starting to unionize themselves. Weiler, 37, went to BC he says, because “the BC labor code is the major experiment in labor law in Canada.” He may, however, leave before his five-year tenure is complete because he wants to return to Osgoode Hall to write a book about his experiences in BC. Described by many as having one of the keenest legal minds in the country, he has already written a book about the Supreme Court of Canada and there is speculation that he might well become that court’s youngest-ever appointee. But that, insists Weiler, is “not one of my immediate career opportunities.”

JUDITH TIMSON