Monday, August 15, 2005

Replacement worker ban still makes sense

VICTORIA - It's helpful to think of replacement workers in terms of nuclear war.
I grew up with images of mushroom clouds, calculating the likelihood that Russia would decide to make Buffalo a target - I lived in Toronto - and whether they were competent enough to annihilate that city without accidentally melting my suburb.
The Cold War weapons race was about deterrence through mutually assured destruction. As long as the U.S. and the Soviet Union each knew that the other had enough weapons of mass destruction to ensure a nightmarish retaliation for any attack, they would behave. Give either an advantage, the theory assumes, and they would bomb the other country back to mud, rocks and ruin.
Labour relations sometimes come to the same point.
Wise unions, and wise companies, recognize the benefits of co-operation. They negotiate agreements based on compromise and common interests.
But people aren't always wise. The only thing that force some unions and employers to reach agreements is the threat of mutually assured destruction, in the form of a strike or lockout.
Unions don't want members to give up thousands of dollars in lost wages; companies don't want to see profits vanish, and customers drift to competitors. So when contract talks get tough, they compromise. If the balance of terror is right, both sides give.
Which leads to the issue of replacement workers. B.C. and Quebec are the only provinces that bar companies from bringing in replacement workers if employees go on strike. In B.C., the only people who can try to keep the business going are the managers who normally work in the building. Practically, a strike means most businesses close until the dispute is resolved.
The BC Business Council has again said it's time to reverse the 1993 ban on replacement workers. The current rules give unions too great an ability to hurt companies in the event of a strike, the council argues. That pushes wages to uncompetitive levels, and discourages investment.
There's no right answer on the question.
I managed businesses, and would have welcomed the ability to use replacement workers. The one newspaper that closed on my watch might not have fallen, I expect, saving more than 100 jobs. The unions involved miscalculated the newspaper's resources, and its ability to survive a strike. The possibility of replacement workers might have encouraged a more cautious assessment of the risks.
But anecdote is not good foundation for policy. And there are companies who would treat the ability to use replacement workers as the latest mega-bomb to use against their employees.
It's risky to mess with the status quo in labour relations; changes have big consequences. When the Harcourt government eliminated the secret ballot vote on certification in 1992, unions suddenly doubled their growth rate.
The evidence suggests the current balance of power is about right. The business council cites a study that concludes a ban on replacement workers results in more, longer strikes, higher wages and reduced investment. But the study is based largely on the experience in Quebec, which has other issues of its own. (The council plans to release its own research on the issue this fall.)
The replacement worker ban doesn't appear to be distorting wages. The average weekly wage in B.C is $700, right on the national average, with Alberta and Ontario well ahead. And the province has been through a relatively peaceful period in labour relations.
The Liberals have come to the same assessment so far. And while they have trampled all over public sector unions, Campbell and company have been cautious when it comes to the broader labour relations framework.
New Labour Minister Mike de Jong, like predecessor Graham Bruce, says he's not interested in re-opening the replacement worker question.
It's a good position. Circumstances may change, or new facts may emerge. But so far the evidence is that the balance of terror - for the unions and companies that operate on that level - is about right.
Footnote: A key reason offered for the introduction of the ban, to prevent picket line violence, still applies. Any effort by Teck Cominco, for example, to operate its struck Trail smelter, would spark ugly battles. It's troubling that the rule of law would break down, but it is also a realistic concern.

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