There are two major work stoppages going on in Ontario right now that have shown the division between labour and management in this chilled province.
In Ottawa, the Amalgamated Transit Union, local 279 have been on strike for fifty-one days. There is no bus service in Ottawa, the Nation’s Capital and hasn’t been since December. Traffic is a mess and businesses are hurting, as Ottawa (like any government town) relies on public transit to get folks to the job.
In Toronto, York University has their teachers on the picket line. Canadian Union of Public Employees local 3903 has been on the line since November 6th last year. For the 50,000 students, the academic year is essentially the toilet. All that is left is to pull the handle, spray some air freshener and walk away.
Today the City of Ottawa and Local 279 have agreed to binding arbitration to settle their dispute with a three-year deal, no preconditions. The arbitrator will settle it.
Yesterday the Ontario Government ordered CUPE Local 3903 back to work at York University.
The score so far? Unions 1, Government 1. Binding arbitration is not the best way to get an agreement, but at least it is an agreement. Back to work legislation for anyone but firefighters, cops, ambulance and health care workers is a slap in the face to the whole concept of collective bargaining.
We need a bit of perspective here: Unions came into existence because companies had been behaving like demented Roman Emperors, treating their employees like possessions. Things like maternity leave, health care benefits, overtime pay, statutory days off, retirement benefits and workplace safety are all direct benefits of ‘the unions’, so perhaps a little gratitude might be in order. Christmas Day wasn’t always a holiday.
Unions are not a bunch of greedy monsters, looking to work for 2 hours and be paid for 40. That was never the style in Canada. Things are more enlightened than the old stereotype of British mineworkers walking off the job for six weeks because someone in management moved a lunchbox. It’s a unfair and untrue stereotype of the worst kind, so disabuse yourself of that idea. Reality is significantly different.
The real question is why would a union exist in the first place? That’s easy to answer: Treat the staff like crap and you’ll get a union in the workplace. Ideally an organization that treats their people with respect and treats them fairly, rarely has a ‘problem’ with a union. Even companies that have a unionized workforce, if they play nice and play fair, rarely have ‘union’ problems.
Done properly, employer and employee relations are very simple things. The company has to recognize that the people who work for them are humans, not possessions. The employee must recognize that the company wants a fair day’s productive work out of them, so they can make money to pay the salaries and turn a profit.
Simple isn’t it? It can be. It takes a bit of humility on both sides and a bit of common sense.
Forcing people back to work is by far the easiest way to completely crush morale in any organization. It sends the message that "You are Meat. We Own You. Do What You Are Told To Do And Shut Up." If your life partner told you that across the pot roast, would there be a loud, vibrant and unpleasant discussion in your household? The same holds true in the workplace.
Ideally in a labour management negotiation, both sides should come out of it mildly pissed off. That’s what a good negotiation is all about: A compromise between the two parties.
Back to work legislation is nothing more than a back alley beat down by the government. Binding arbitration is going to leave both Ottawa and the Transit Union angry as binding arbitration is an imposed settlement. Both sides get it stuck up a major bodily orifice by a third-party. Sometimes there is a kiss and a cuddle afterwards, but not always.
The busses might start running and the classes might start up again, but there are going to be some truly angry people doing those jobs.