Late-August Industrial Relations News

Lately I haven’t posted a lot of news from the world of Canadian industrial relations – but suddenly, at the end of the summer, all sorts of things are happening.

♦ The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) are seriously considering a merger, which would create Canada’s largest private sector union. A jointly authored report backs the idea, and the delegates at this week’s CAW convention also voted in favour of it. The CEP will have its own vote at its convention in October.

The major reasons the unions want to merge are that they want to present a strong and unified resistance to the Harper government’s attacks on organized labour, and want to create a union with sufficient resources to resist large corporations’ anti-union strategies. Intriguingly, this idea goes right back to the philosophies of some of the earliest unions in Canada, such as the International Workers of the World (still in existence after more than 100 years) and the One Big Union. Both the IWW and the OBU organized workers in all types of industries and occupations, arguing that only one union representing all workers could be strong enough to make a difference for workers in a capitalist society. The IWW and the OBU organized some of the first union locals in Canada for workers in resource industries – some of the same occupations that the CAW and CEP now represent.

Both unions’ leadership seem very enthusiastic about the idea, and undoubtedly a single very large union would be better positioned than a smaller one to counteract the power of anti-union governments and employers. Both the CEP and the CAW  have also experienced downturns in their member numbers because of job losses in traditionally heavily unionized industries, and a merger will clearly help offset the effects of those losses. I can, however, see a big practical downside to the merger – namely, the ability of such a big union to adequately represent all the interests of a very diverse membership in many different kinds of workplaces right across the country. As a member of one of CEP’s predecessor unions, I personally witnessed how difficult and how divisive it can be when one group of members thinks the union leadership is favouring other groups, or trading off the interests of one group against another – and this was on a much smaller scale than a nationwide “super union” with more than 300,000 members.  If the merger goes ahead, the new “super union” will likely have to put in some work to ensure that all of its members feel they are being adequately represented.
♦ Perhaps taking a cue from the resolution of the dispute between British Columbia’s teachers and government, the Ontario government plans to introduce a bill that would restrict wages and cut benefits for public school teachers, based on an earlier agreement reached with teachers in Ontario’s Catholic schools. The government argues that it needs to pass the bill by September 1 to stop the terms of the existing contracts from rolling over into the next school year. The teachers’ unions plan to oppose the bill through court action and potentially through a work-to-rule campaign.

♦ The BC Government and Service Employees Union (BCGEU) has become frustrated with the lack of movement in its contract talks with the BC government. Unlike other BC public sector unions, it has been offered a wage increase by the government of 3.5% over two years, which is somewhat of a surprise given the government’s past insistence that it had a “net zero mandate” for public sector contracts. To press its bargaining demands, the BCGEU has embarked on a series of one-day rotating strikes. A BC provincial election is scheduled for May 2013, and polls show an ongoing decline of support for the Liberal government. The dispute with the BCGEU could escalate if the government thinks that taking on a big public sector unions could strengthen its image pre-election.

What your local NHL arena could look like after Sept. 15. (Credit: megasportsnews.com)

♦ The National Hockey League  (NHL) and the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) are negotiating for a new collective agreement (or collective bargaining agreement, as they call it) to replace the current agreement that expires September 15. The parties appear to be quite far apart on the issue of salary caps which restrict the total amount that a team can spend on player salaries. This is the first set of negotiations in which the NHLPA has been represented by Donald Fehr, who spent many years as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, and represented them during the 1994 major league baseball players’ strike. The NHL team owners are threatening a lockout on Sept. 15 if the contract is not settled, which could result in the loss of an entire NHL season – in other words, exactly happened after the 2004 NHL lockout.

And although a lot of the media coverage of this dispute focuses around the very large sums of money involved in the negotiations – we’re not talking about unions and managers quibbling over a few cents’ difference in an hourly wage – it’s important to remember that an NHL shutdown doesn’t just affect rich athletes and sports executives.  This article has a good overview of what a shutdown would mean for other businesses, services, and workers.

♦ On another hockey-union-related matter, there’s a plan to create a union for the players in Canada’s three largest junior hockey leagues. The Canadian Hockey League Players Association wants to negotiate for better player benefits, including improved post-career support for education, for those players who don’t end up in the NHL. Although there seems to be some confusion over who is guiding this initiative, and how successful it might be, the  new association has already appointed former Montreal Canadiens player Georges Laraque as its executive director. (On a purely selfish note, I have to point out since learning how to figure skate for CBC’s Battle of the Blades show, Laraque has been a strong advocate for figure skating, and has been performing across the country in skating clubs’ ice shows. As an adult figure skater, I really appreciate an ex-hockey player saying how tough and demanding figure skating is, and I sincerely hope that Laracque has the time to continue this advocacy.)
♦ And two other disputes that I’ve written about are, sadly, still in progress: the Society of Professional Engineers and Associates has been on strike at Candu Energy for almost two months, but are very reluctantly voting on a final offer from Candu’s owners, SNC-Lavalin, this weekend. And the Rocky Mountaineer train service workers will have been locked out for 438 days as of September 1.

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