While I walked the picket line last week, I had time to think about labour relations in B.C.. I had joined some other faculty members in support of the striking CUPE workers at UCC. I couldn’t help but notice how civil this strike was, despite the tension that any strike creates.
It could have been much worse. There were lots reasons why tempers should flair: lost instruction time for students, lost wages for staff and faculty, and cancellation of social and entertainment events on campus. But the climate was one of mutual respect.
An announcement by UCC’s president’s helped set the tone. He said that there would be no classes since it was assumed that faculty would honour picket lines. As a result, very few people crossed the picket line and tension was minimized. The mood was actually cordial. Strikers gave out passes to administrators that would allow them easy crossing of picket lines. One administrator brought coffee and doughnuts to the strikers.
No one likes a strike, but they are a necessary counterbalance to the power that employers have in keeping wages low. Strikes are a weapon of last resort; a heavy, blunt instrument that must be wielded with great care to minimize collateral damage. But when a strike is the only thing left to do, at least it can be conducted in a respectful manner. The mood of labour relations is set by the provincial government in power.
The government of B.C. has reduced labour tension by enacting legislation against the use of replacement workers (anti-scab laws). Employers have no reason to bargain when they can carry on business as usual through the use of replacement workers. Striking workers are understandably upset when they watch replacement workers being brought in to prolong strikes.
Frustration and anger can result in damage to property, injury and death. For example, at a 1993 strike in Yellowknife, at the Giant goldmine, replacement workers were bought in to keep the mine going. 9 workers who had crossed the picket line were killed by a striking worker.
The growth of unions in B.C. has increased in the last decade. By 1998, the percentage of unionized workers in B.C. was the second highest in Canada; surpassed only by Newfoundland and tied with Quebec (39 and 36 per cent, respectively).
Remarkably, as the numbers of unionized workers have been increasing in B.C. , the days lost to strikes has been decreasing. In the last decade, days lost due to strikes dropped 80 per cent over the previous decade to 8 days per week (per 100,000 workers) . Labour discontent hit a high in the previous decade, when the Social Credit government proposed a particularly odious labour law. 286,000 workers walked of the job one day, June 1, 1987. Fortunately, the labour climate in B.C. has improved since then.
The government of Ontario has taken a different stance towards its workers. Its tactic has been to attack unions. The government introduced legislation that removed worker rights. Bill 7 denies the rights of agricultural, domestic and professional workers to bargain collectively and to strike. In addition, the bill terminates organizing rights of these workers, nullifies their current collective agreements, and removes protection from anti-union discrimination.
Some particularly bitter strikes in the Ontario education sector have attracted world attention. The International Labour Organization in Geneva ruled that the government of Ontario denied workers access to collective bargaining, terminated existing organizing rights and nullified collective agreements. These attacks unnecessarily divide society and create a confrontational workplace. Although unionization is lower in Ontario, lost days due to strikes is greater than in B.C..
The Ontario get-tough attitude invites an escalating feud with organized workers that threatens peace and order. Recent action by the police union in Toronto shows how ugly things can get. They brought in militant union activists from the United States who advised them on how to eliminate political enemies of the union. Activists suggest the use of police powers of investigation to dig up dirt against politicians in an attempt to eliminate them.
Hostility against workers breeds revenge and bitter retaliation. It’s not the civil society that I envision for Canada — and it doesn’t have to be that way.