Labor's trying times


Labor's trying times


Labor's trying times



Labor relations are terrible and they are getting worse.

Employers are on a roll. They are just pushing workers down as far as they can push us.

—Gordon Wilson, president, Ontario Federation of Labour

Unions are classic depicters of victimhood. They want to be free from negative economic effects. But they have to recognize that isn’t possible. They are becoming an embittered rump group.

—Leonard Lee, co-owner, Lee Valley Tools, Ottawa

Deeply held views, reflecting deeply divided philosophies. Lee, 58, has spent 19 years building his woodworking and gardening tool business into a seven-store chain. Times are good at Lee Valley Tools, partly because of growing U.S. sales, and the company’s 300 non-unionized employees enjoy a generous profit-sharing plan. While unions have a place, Lee says, their members expect too much. “They shouldn’t be taking pay cuts all the time, but we need to look at some of the featherbedding that goes on,” he says. The Ontario Federation of Labour’s Wilson, on the other hand, believes that labor is fighting for its life. In the face of massive spending cuts by the Harris government, as well as the repeal of liberalized labor legislation,

his organization spearheaded the controversial Days of Pro test that, on Oct. 25, slowed Toronto to a crawl. But public reaction to the picket lines and rallies was decidedly mixed, and Wilson says voters simply do not realize that the Ontario Tories, like governments right across the country, are systematically hacking away at the gains unions have made since the end of the Second World War. “At least our people are standing up for themselves,” he snorts. “They’re not at home, anxiously twiddling their thumbs.”

Organized labor under siege—that reality was evident across the country last week as unions did battle with employers. In Vancouver, Canadian Auto Workers chief Buzz Hargrove was battered by management, his own rank and file, and even Ottawa, for refusing to sign a wage-cutting deal with Canadian Airlines International— one that the troubled carrier says is crucial to its survival (page 20). At the same time, the B.C. Government and Services Employees Union is negotiating quietly with the provincial NDP government, which announced earlier this year that it will lay off 3,000 civil servants. While the union will probably succeed in cushioning the impact of the cuts, it will almost certainly not stop them. Even the Parti Québécois government of Lucien Bouchard, once firmly allied with labor, is facing a groundswell of opposition from unionists as it prepares to force cutbacks on its civil service.

The days when labor and management could both come away from the bargaining table with smiles on their faces may be drawing

to a close. The loser, at least in most cases, is likely to be labor. Although the economy is showing signs of taking off for the first time since the late 1980s, unemployment hovers stubbornly at nearly 10 per cent. It does not help that business executives say a relatively docile workforce is fuelling their optimism about the future. Laws favoring labor have recently been eroded by the governments of Ontario, Manitoba and by Ottawa itself. Perhaps most tellingly, the influence that organized labor wields with its traditional ally, the New Democratic Party, is declining. Angry and frustrated, some unions are abandoning the conciliatory approach they adopted during the last recession, and returning to hardball tactics like strikes and demonstrations. The Canadian Auto Workers, for instance, settled quietly with the automakers in 1993, but launched a damaging three-week strike against General Motors in October of this year that ended, by most measures, in a draw.

Others, including the 200,000 members of the 14-year-old Canadian Federation of Labour, are looking for new, less confrontational ways to negotiate contracts. And instead of viewing the NDP as the best route to power, some unions are building nonpartisan, grassroots support in their communities, forging links with organizations such as churches and anti-poverty coalitions. Underlying such efforts is the growing perception that the old ways are no longer working. In Ontario last year, the number of workdays lost to strikes was more than 1,700,000, compared with less than half a million the year before. Yet gains in wages and fight back job security have been modest. “Unions are in

crisis for a variety of reasons,” says Pradeep Kumar, professor of industrial relations at Queen’s University in Kingston. “But in some ways, that is stimulating activism. They are getting more involved in social issues. Now they need to demonstrate that they are necessary—and not just an interest group.”

Of course, many of the rank and file remain deeply conservative. A bird in the hand—a good job, bolstered by the protection of a welloiled grievance procedure—far outweighs the minor wage gains a strike might bring. Frank Isherwood, 48, says he is lucky to have his $20-an-hour job at Stelco Inc. in Hamilton, even though his work as the assistant operator of a coke oven puts him in close contact with toxic chemicals. His previous training as a nurse’s assistant would bring him only $12 to $13 an hour. “I don’t think you gain on a strike, that’s for sure,” says Isherwood, a member of the United Steelworkers of America. “You never make back the money that you lost, and it creates ill feeling.” He is also clear that starting over, should he lose his job, would be devastating. “When I started years ago, I had a pretty lousy, stinking, dirty job and worked my way up. I wouldn’t want to have to do that again.”

All this translates into a boon for business. Jeff Rubin, chief economist at CIBC Wood Gundy in Toronto, says years of slow wage growth and continuing layoffs have put labor on the defensive, which “business sees as reasonably positive.” Stagnant wages are particularly beneficial for manufacturers who export their goods, Rubin adds, noting that the boom in exports is responsible for much of the Canadian economy’s recent signs of life.

So embattled is labor that even victories seem more like rearguard actions against the inevitable. The GM strike, for instance, was fought over the company’s right to “outsource”—transferring

portions of its operations to often lower-paying, non-unionized companies. But while that process will now be delayed, it will not be halted. At the end of the three-year contract, the company will have the power to continue the move towards outsourcing, a trend that is even more pronounced at Ford and Chrysler.

In the public sector, unions are also finding that their once-powerful bargaining power has vanished—thanks to public pressure to balance the books. And even in provinces with NDP governments, the workers’ party has become little more than a politely estranged friend who may do lunch, but won’t come for dinner. Last week, the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, which represents the province’s 37,000 civil servants, was close to an agreement with the government, which is planning to lay off at least 3,000 of its members. The union, which threw its weight behind Premier Glen Clark’s election campaign last spring, is seeking concessions, such as retraining programs for laid-off workers. But the cuts will likely proceed—without the all-out warfare that resulted when the Harris government embarked on similar layoffs in Ontario last spring.

Angry and frustrated, unions are playing hardball

Better a lukewarm NDP, many unionists now believe, than an openly hostile Tory government. “We have very mixed feelings about the government,” says John Shields, president of the B.C. government employees’ union. ‘We still see them as a better choice, but we are also critical of their failure to include us in discussions about alternatives to the directions they are taking.” This sort of muted opposition appears to be even more entrenched in Saskatchewan, where Roy Romanow’s NDP government has put the province’s fiscal house in order—but not without grumbling from the unions. Among other areas of conflict, Romanow has irritated labor by failing to pass so-called antiscab legislation, which prohibits the use of replacement workers during a strike.

Despite the official coolness, Romanow believes labor is increasingly willing to see his government’s point of view. “I hear more and more trade union leaders talk about the need to co-operate rather than embark on policies of confrontation,” he says. That is certainly true of Dan Bichel, a bus driver who recently ran, unsuccessfully, for the leadership of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour. “Why would we want to be screaming and yelling on the legislature steps,” he asks, “rather than standing in the offices of the MLAs and talking to them about the problems we have?”

Some might say that co-operative stance amounts to little more than rolling over and playing dead. But in Ontario, at least one union claims to have been transformed by adopting a new, conciliatory approach to negotiation. Virtually every second year, from the late 1970s until 1990, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers walked off the job. ‘We led the spring parade of striking construction workers,” says union executive John Pender. But when Ontario’s building boom collapsed in the early 1990s, electricians found themselves facing an unemployment rate of 50 to 60 per cent. Members were also weary of the strike cycle and wanted to try another path, Pender says. Beginning in 1992, they began using a model that requires each party to put their best offer before an arbitrator who then makes the final choice.

While gains have not been dramatic, the electricians have “managed to stop the bleeding,” Pender says. Wage increases now average about one per cent a year, and grievances are handled by the parties themselves, with no lawyers standing by. When bargaining time arrives, both sides try to help the process along by avoiding the pressure of the limelight, retreating to small centres like Niagaraon-the-Lake, Ont. “If you’d known us before, you’d hardly recognize us,” Pender says. They just might be onto something.