Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Public sector strikes: there's a better way

VICTORIA - It's time for a new way of resolving public sector labour disputes, especially in the health sector.
Premier Gordon Campbell doesn't seem keen on the idea, making no commitment for action. Labour Minister Graham Bruce says he's explored ideas a little with an informal "blue-ribbon panel" of advisors.
But the way we do things now doesn't work. And there are alternatives.
Most labour negotiations are resolved at the bargaining table. That's partly because union and company can usually agree pretty much on what a reasonable settlement would look like and find their way there, with some posturing along the way.
But negotiations also work because both sides are strongly motivated to avoid the worst case outcome - a strike or a lockout.
It's the labour version of the Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction. That theory held that as long as the U.S. and Russia each had enough atomic bombs to reduce each other to rubble, neither would be crazy enough to use them.
The strike/lockout threat is a small-scale version of the same principle. Companies know that a strike could inflict big economic damage, perhaps so great that the business would never recover and owners would lose everything. Employees know that they could be giving up wages for an indefinite period, and that if the company goes broke everything will be lost.
Asa result both sides are extremely motivated to make a deal. Both are aware of the dangers.
The balance actually works pretty well. (And to their credit the Liberals have done nothing to tilt the scale in favour of employers, despite pressure from some business groups.)
But the process breaks down in many public sector negotiations. Both sides know that the right to strike or lockout employees is an illusion. The public will get crabby; the politicians will step in and order a return to work; and a deal will be imposed or brokered in the backrooms.
Under the NDP those deals tended to favour the unions. The Hospital Employee Union's members work a 36-hour week because that's part of the deal former health minister Elizabeth Cull agreed to in 1993 to end a strike.
Under the Liberals, the deals favour the employers. The government moved the union back to a 37.5-hour week in the current dispute. (The change matters. The increase to 37.5 hours means about 1,700 fewer employees will be required; an increase to 40 hours would push the job loss to more than 4,000.)
And meanwhile the public suffers through the disruptions and pendulum swings.
It's time for a better system.
John Fryer has just chaired a federal committee looking at the same issues. Fryer has seen disputes from both sides, as a former BCGEU leader and a senior B.C. government bureaucrat.
The committee proposed an independent public interest disputes commission, with members experienced in employer and union sectors. If a dispute was looming, they would investigate and present a "framework for a settlement in the public interest." The commission would also have the chance to recommend mediation or other ways of resolving the dispute.
Nothing would be binding. But it would be tougher for both sides to cling to unreasonable positions in the face of an independent review. (Ottawa acted on the recommendation.)
There are other options. Both parties could be required to submit their final offers to an arbitrator who would pick one or the other in its entirety. Since trying for too much would mean you get nothing, a reasonable approach and moderation would be encouraged.
B.C. needs a better way of resolving these kinds of disputes. The current system serves both sides badly and makes the public tthe victim of destructive and unnecessary confrontations.
The government should start a search for a better way now, involving labour and employer representatives, and with a pledge to have some system of dispute resolution as part of next years' election platform.
Footnote: The Liberals have one big problem on this issue. Any solution relies on mutual trust that commitments will be honoured. But the Liberals have agreed to arbitration and then reneged when they didn't like the results. They have signed contracts, and then broken them when they proved inconvenient. A solution that imposes discipline on only one side in a dispute is doomed.

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