284 Days and Counting: How Public Pressure Influences Labour Disputes

The British Columbia teachers’ bargaining dispute with the government is the most high-profile labour dispute in the province right now. And one question that keeps coming up in discussions of the situation is: can public pressure make a difference in how this dispute gets settled?

The standard labour-relations-curriculum answer is that public pressure can make a huge difference in the outcome of labour disputes. To see what can happen in a labour dispute in the absence of public pressure, or public attention for that matter, look at another labour dispute going on in BC – the lockout of the Teamsters Local 31 members who work as on-board attendants on the Rocky Mountaineer rail service.

The union and the employer started bargaining in early 2011. In May 2011, the company recruited replacement workers on Craigslist. After a strike vote from the union members, the employer locked them out on June 22, 2011.

In BC, employers are banned from using replacement workers. But because train transportation falls under federal law, the Canada Labour Code is the law that applies to the Rocky Mountaineer dispute – and the Canada Labour Code allows employers to hire replacements for workerson strike or locked out. Judging by this recent Craigslist ad, the Rocky Mountaineer plans to use recruitment workers this summer as well.

According to the locked out workers‘ blog, no negotiations are currently going on.

Now given all the uproar about BC teachers striking for three days, you might wonder why another group of workers can be locked out for nearly 300 days without much attention being paid. The last significant amount of major media coverage of the dispute was in early October 2011, when the Vancouver International Film Festival held its opening night gala at the Rocky Mountaineer station in Vancouver – an event which, because of the dispute, was boycotted by members of several film industry unions. Some commentators have implied that the political affiliations of Rocky Mountaineer president Peter Armstrong – he was the campaign manager for the NPA party in Vancouver’s 2011 civic election and has supported the BC Liberal Party in the past – are a reason for the lack of coverage. I’d suggest instead that there are probably more ordinary reasons for the lack of attention.

First: sheer numbers. There’s just over 100 locked-out Rocky Mountaineer workers, but there’s more than 40,000 BC Teachers Federation members. More people involved in a dispute means more public attention and awareness.

Second: the Rocky Mountaineer service only operates between April and October. There’s not much news value (at least by most media standards) in showing something like picketing outside offices that are closed for the season. Public support for a settlement is not likely to develop during times when the service isn’t operating.

Third: train tours are not the kind of work that affects most people’s regular lives. Compare that to teachers; a good-sized proportion of the population either sees them at work every day or interacts with people who see them at work. The Rocky Mountaineer service doesn’t have that kind of regular impact on people’s lives. Added to that is the fact that Rocky Mountaineer’s customers are mostly tourists, not local residents – so public support for a settlement is not going to develop for a service that most Vancouver residents use rarely, if at all.

Fourth: the Rocky Mountaineer dispute is pretty much invisble. The Rocky Mountaineer station in Vancouver is near a main road (Terminal Avenue), but it’s at the end of a relatively untravelled side street. Picketers might be seen by people going to the Home Depot across the way, but otherwise, out of sight equals out of mind. Teachers have many more workplaces, and much more visible ones, at which to publicize their bargaining dispute.

So while the issues in the Rocky Mountaineer dispute are no less important than the issues in the teachers’ dispute, neither situation is typical of collective bargaining disputes in BC – most collective agreements are reached without a strike or a lockout. But together they demonstrate how public pressure can affect the progress of a bargaining dispute.

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