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Editorial: Feds go too far with back-to-work bills

The federal government has been raising more than a few eyebrows with its approach to labour relations lately.

Editorial Obiter with Glenn Kauth
Editorial Obiter with Glenn Kauth
First, it vowed to legislate Air Canada employees back to work even in the absence of evidence that the strike was having a significant impact. It promised to do the same after Canada Post locked out its workers earlier this month. In that case as well, the effects on the public have paled in comparison to Canada’s experiences during previous postal strikes.

The moves are particularly surprising in light of our courts’ recent jurisprudence on the right to collective bargaining. The leading case, of course, is the Supreme Court’s ruling in Health Services and Support — Facilities Subsector Bargaining Association v. British Columbia in 2007.

In that case, the court was considering the B.C. government’s efforts to contract out work to non-union workers. The landmark decision upheld the notion of collective bargaining as a constitutional right as well as employers’ duty to negotiate in good faith.

In proposing legislation to send Canada Post workers back to their jobs, the government actually went as far as mandating a wage settlement that was less than the company had been offering the union.

Under the bill, workers would receive a 1.75-per-cent increase in the first year, 1.5 per cent in the second year, and two per cent in the last two years. Canada Post had been offering 1.9 per cent in the first three years and two per cent in the last year.

Pensions, of course, were a key sticking point in both the Air Canada and Canada Post labour disputes. Management wants to move to defined-contribution plans for new workers, while unions are eager to protect their existing defined-benefit schemes for all.

Regardless of the merits of either side’s argument — although it’s becoming clear that public-sector unions will at some point have to deal with the growing disparity in pensions between their members and those in the private sector as well as taxpayers’ ability to fund them — the government appears to be taking a legal risk in usurping the collective bargaining process so aggressively and going as far as imposing a worse wage settlement.

Perhaps the government believes that by leaving the pension issue for determination by an arbitrator who will choose to impose either the union’s or the employer’s final offer, it might skirt a legal challenge. It may also be hoping the courts will reconsider the B.C. Health Services decision by giving employers more leeway than the Supreme Court provided.

At the end of the day, however, it’s worrisome that the government has shown itself to be so dismissive of collective bargaining. Beyond the fact that back-to-work legislation should be a tool of last resort, if employers truly want to alter their pension schemes, they have a better chance of achieving that at the bargaining table than through arbitration.

That’s particularly true with Canada Post, an organization that despite its status as a key national institution, most of us can live without for a few weeks.
— Glenn Kauth


+1 # seetha 2011-06-27 12:59
Appreciated that Employee unions negotiating about their benefits. At the same time, employees need to understand the situation of employer. Increasing competition, pressure on financial margins and other similar factors made Canada Post in tough situation.Union s did not think about these, and just sat at table demanding their benefits.What unions are expecting?'Coll apsed Canada post'?Once it is financially collapsed,who will take care of employees benefits?Unions should review their demands first, and should go to negotiations table with good faith and proper demands.Another message to union is-Public is not ready to hear any more disruptions.Emp loyees always has option to leave canada post if they are not satisfied with benefits they are getting. But it isn't acceptable to hear any more strikes.Feds did a good job by passing bill Back-to-work.It should have passed right and strong message to all unions.past-Air Canada, present-Canada Post, Future-Telecomm unications Workers Union.
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-1 # Dwayne 2011-06-27 13:56
What occured this past weekend was positively frightening. We just witnessed the government stomping on the rights of unionized workers to bargain collectively.(a right that was paid for in blood and lives's true, check your history.) As Glenn stated, back to work legislation is to be used as a last resort, the fact that the government is so eager to step in and force its' will on the citizens of this country should be a warning bell to everyone.
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0 # @Fairpension 2011-06-27 20:30
Good comments... But tell me, the government has ceded their negotiations to a arbitrator. Who selects arbitrators? Do they have pensions to protect. Is there transparency in the arbitration process.... The two reader comments seem to suggest opposing viewpoints to the arbitration process. It would be helpful for commentary from the legal community as to how arbitration works.
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