LABOR

Tighter picket lines

Ontario debates proposed labor law changes

D’ARCY JENISH,PATRICIA CHISHOLM August 10 1992
LABOR

Tighter picket lines

Ontario debates proposed labor law changes

D’ARCY JENISH,PATRICIA CHISHOLM August 10 1992

Tighter picket lines

LABOR

Ontario debates proposed labor law changes

After an organizing campaign that lasted several weeks, the 170,000member Canadian Auto Workers union applied to the Ontario Labor Relations Board in May, 1991, for the right to represent 75 workers at a wheel plant in Newmarket, Ont., owned by Hyundai Auto Canada Inc. At the same time, 33 workers at the plant, 35 km north of Toronto, submitted a petition opposing the union. Under provincial labor law, the petition automatically triggered an Ontario Labor Relations Board (OLRB) hearing. Last week, lawyers representing the union, the company and dissident employees made their 19th appearance before the board to argue the case.

But under amendments to the Ontario Labor Relations Act introduced in June by Ontario’s New Democratic Party government, the right of employees to submit petitions would be sharply curtailed and union certification would probably become much easier. Said Helmut Mitic, assistant to the president of the auto union: "With this new law, we would have been certified a year ago at Hyundai and had a collective agreement.” The proposals have triggered fierce controversy. While labor groups have welcomed the amendments, many business leaders say that they favor unions and could damage Ontario’s economy by driving away new investment.

Reflecting the intensity of the debate, about 300 companies, organizations and individuals were expected to testify on the proposed new law after the Aug. 4 opening in Toronto of provincewide hearings conducted by a legislative committee. The reforms would, among other things, ban the use of replacement, or “scab,” workers during strikes and give the OLRB broad new powers to resolve labor disputes.

Business leaders contend that the amendments would give unions too much power.

Said Brian Smeenk, a Toronto lawyer who helped to write an analysis of the proposals for the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario: “These amendments give Ontario the most left-wing, pro-union, antibusiness labor legislation in North America.”

For his part, Ontario Labor Minister Robert Mackenzie said that the amendments are necessary because the composition of the province’s workforce has changed dramatically since the act was last overhauled 17 years ago. The number of women workers and immigrant employees in the province has increased sharp-

ly. At the same time, Ontario is rapidly acquiring a services-and-information-based economy as the old industrial and manufacturing economy declines. According to labor department figures, only 31 per cent of service sector workers belong to unions, compared with 42 per cent of manufacturing employees. One of the proposed amendments is intended to help service industry workers when a nonunionized company successfully bids against a unionized competitor for a contract to carry out such functions as cleaning or cafeteria services in an office tower or hospital. In such cases, the winning contractor would have to hire his competitor’s employees and pay them union wages and benefits.

Labor leaders said that they would fight any attempt by the business community to weaken

the reforms. The auto union’s Mitic said that proposed restrictions on petitions against certification would make it easier for employees to organize union locals. He said that the labor relations board currently rejects almost 90 per cent of the anti-union petitions, usually because

there is evidence to show that company owners or managers have encouraged employees to submit them.

Labor leaders also said that they will work to eliminate loopholes in provisions designed to restrict the use of replacement workers during a strike. Christopher Schenk, research director for the Ontario Federation of Labor, said that under the proposed amendments, a strikebound company could hire an outside contractor to do the work normally done by strikers, although the work would have to be done at another location. An employer could also ask supervisors or nonunionized staff to perform jobs normally done by striking employees.

Business leaders said that they are equally determined to win major modifications. Paul Nykanen, vice-president of the Toronto-based Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, said that the amendments would give the labor relations board a mandate to serve the interests of unions, rather than acting as a neutral arbitra-

tor of disputes. Indeed, a section of the proposed amendments states that they are designed to give employees more power during contract negotiations “for the purpose of improving their terms and conditions of employment.” Opponents of the legislation say that there are signs that the proposals may already be discouraging new investment. Officials of Hayes-Dana Inc., a major automobile parts manufacturer in St. Catharines, Ont., said in June that the firm had

indefinitely delayed an $8-million expansion at one of its 11 Ontario plants, largely because of the plans to amend labor laws. But so far, the government has shown no sign of backing away from its far-reaching and controversial proposals.

D’ARCY JENISH

PATRICIA CHISHOLM