Last spring, the Ontario government spent a lot of money buying labour peace with the province's teachers.
Education Minister Gerard Kennedy threw $1 billion at elementary teachers and $750 million at their counterparts in the secondary system, some of it for pay raises and some of it to hire 1,300 so called "student success teachers" charged with helping youngsters who are not doing well.
The alternative was a strike, or strikes, and few things terrify a politician as much as a labour stoppage that closes schools across the province. And so the teachers got what they wanted, as they have so often in the past.
Similarly, the Toronto Transit Commission came within a whisker of a strike earlier this year and probably would have seen its unionized workers abandon buses, subways and ticket booths for the picket lines were it not for a last-ditch intervention by Mayor David Miller.
|File photo by Larry MacDougal, Business Edge|
|Telus workers let the company know their feelings during a rally in Calgary this summer.|
Municipal politicians can develop ulcers merely contemplating a transit strike, the massive congestion that comes with it and the disruption in the lives of tens of thousands of commuters. And so the TTC workers got the fat raises they were demanding, as they have in previous rounds of negotiations.
Teachers and transit workers are in an unusual position. They are monopoly providers of essential services. They have a captive public - parents and commuters - and they can count on those captives to scream bloody murder, not at them of course, but at the politicians when a labour dispute shuts the schools or a transit system. Most unions do not wield such power, though this unpleasant fact is often lost on labour leaders and their members. Negotiations become confrontational, brinksmanship takes the place of common sense and a strike or a lockout becomes a march of the lemmings - for the workers.
The National Hockey League Players Association went down this disastrous path last fall, cavalierly assuming that the owners could not afford to cancel an entire season and that the fans would never stand for it. The players and their leader, Bob Goodenow, were wrong on both counts. They underestimated the resolve of the owners and, as for the fans, they made do with the endless supply of entertainment available to them to while away the winter. A retreat by the players turned into a rout, complete capitulation and, finally, the departure of Goodenow.
The same sorry scenario is now unfolding on the English-language side of the CBC. Some 5,500 members of the Canadian Media Guild have been locked out by management since mid-August. The sides are at war over management's desire to reduce the number of staffers and increase the proportion of contract workers who work behind the scenes in production. The guild cannot hope for much in the way of public sympathy here because the average viewer or listener doesn't care a whit who produces The National or Hockey Night In Canada or Sunday Morning so long as Peter Mansbridge, Ron MacLean and Michael Enright are there to host the programs.
The staffers also seem to have succumbed to the notion that there is a public out there that needs the CBC because the CBC is an indispensable strand in the fabric of Canadian society. This is a myth perpetrated by the chattering classes in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver and a few other locales, by the friends of public broadcasting and by a cast of less distinguished riders. Those who buy the myth are deluded. We all have our favourite CBC programs, but if they're not available, hey, there's always an alternative on the Internet, in the 500-channel universe or at the local video store.
There have been two disputes in recent months that appear to defy any definition of rational conduct.
The first involves clerical staff, operators and technicians who are employed by the phone company Telus and belong to the Telecommunications Workers Union. In late July, 6,000 of them began to walk the picket line in B.C., but only about 2,400 of their 5,500 Alberta brethren went with them. The balance of the Alberta membership crossed the picket line and went to work. By mid-September, 55 per cent of the Alberta workers were back at their desks. Meanwhile, some 3,000 Ontario and Quebec members refused from the beginning to walk.
Money is not the issue here. After all, under the company's five-year contract offer, which includes deferred salary increases and lump-sum payments, customer service representatives would receive an extra $49,720 over the length of the five-year contract, network operators would get $51,545 and technicians $58,845. Base salaries currently range from $33,800 annually for a network operator in Alberta to $53,010 for a technician in Alberta.
The union has refused to put the contract before the members for a vote.
Job security is the heart of the dispute. The union is fighting to preserve the positions of 375 employees, including janitors, caterers, carpenters, mechanics and, believe it or not, coin rollers - the folks who tend to the machines that roll coins collected in pay phones. The company wants to outsource these jobs, but has offered the incumbents the opportunity to train for other jobs that would, in most cases, pay the same money or better.
For sheer silliness, though, it is hard to top the strike at Hydro One, a division of the old Ontario Hydro, which is responsible for operating and maintaining the province's electrical transmission facilities. In late May, 1,038 members of the Society of Energy Professionals, which represents engineers, accountants, IT specialists, auditors and media relations officers, walked off the job. That was a big mistake on two counts.
First, the society picked the wrong issue over which to strike. They rejected a management proposal to reduce future costs by cutting wages, benefits and pension packages for incoming employees. Hydro One's position is likely to strike the average person as perfectly reasonable, given rising energy costs and the fact that the current starting salary for an energy professional is about $50,000 a year, that one-third of them earned more than $100,000 in 2004 and that a senior engineer with 30 years of service is entitled to a fully indexed pension of $74,022 per year.
Second, these folks have no public constituency whatsoever. They are mid-level managers buried within a bloated bureaucracy. This summer, Ontarians consumed record amounts of power during one of the longest and hottest heat waves on record, and the system worked just fine without the Society of Energy Professionals.
By going on strike, these workers demonstrated that they are redundant, dispensable and should be candidates for buyouts rather than a new contract.
(D'Arcy Jenish can be reached at email@example.com)