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.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Liberals bungled back-to-work bill badly

VICTORIA - The Liberals did an astonishingly bad job of handling the
health care strike.
They bumbled and bullied and made what was inevitably going to be a bad
situation much, much worse.
The government has a good case for wage and benefit cuts, particularly
after overly generous contract awards under the NDP. (A single mom
working two jobs shouldn't pay more in taxes so health union members
only have to work a 36-hour week.).
And since the Hospital Employees' Union could be expected to fight any
concessions, it's tough to imagine any resolution without some
brinksmanship and disruption.
But the Liberals made a complete mess of this.
It's reasonable to seek cost reductions. It's reasonable to use
legislation to end the strike, deciding the health care system is too
fragile to sustain any more cuts.
But the Liberals had weeks to prepare back-to-work legislation that
would be pragmatic and effective.
They also had an obvious model. The government and the HEU leadership
reached an agreement last year that would have seen wage and benefit
cuts in return for a limit on job loss to privatization. The leadership
recommended it, but the deal was voted down by 57 per cent of the members.
That's a narrow defeat. And the LIberals also knew that just under half
the membership voted. That means only 13,000 of some 43,000 members felt
strongly enough opposed to the deal to cast a no vote.
That tells me that a fair back-to-work bill based on the agreement
reached last year would have worked. Employees and unions would grumble,
but they would return to work. And remember, the government had decided
last year that the deal made sense and was affordable.
That's not what the Liberals did. They opted for legislation that was a
one-sided attack on the union.
The legislation ending the strike imposed - as the base - an unpaid
1.5-hour increase in the work week and an 11-per-cent wage cut. The wage
cut was retroactive to April 1, so employees would be paying back money
from pay cheques they had already cashed. How would most of us feel if
the boss said he wanted to roll back our wages, starting last month, and
could we give him $300? (Even though unions always expect employers to
come up with retroactive pay increases.)
There was no privatization job protection, or any other small win for
the union.
The Liberals touted an option that would have let the HEU agree to have
a government-appointed arbitrator come up with combined pay and benefit
cuts that produced similar savings. (All the Liberal MLAs present voted
against an amendment that would have called for an arbitrator acceptable
to both parties.)
Gordon Campbell has been the peek-a-boo premier through all this. He
didn't speak during the 12-hour debate. He skipped the legislature the
next day. His only comments came in a couple of brief, puzzling
appearances on BCTV.
He urged the unions to accept the arbitration option, claiming the
arbitrator could deal with job protection - even though the bill doesn't
mention that option, and Health Minister Colin Hansen said that was
because he doesn't want any cap on contracting out.
And Campbell suggested that if employees would give up a week of
vacation and move to a 40-hour week with no wage increase, then they
would lose only a little in wage rates.
Sounds simple. But those two changes would translate into another 5,100
HEU members losing their jobs. That's hardly a strong selling point.
Now, after huge disruptions and a serious blow to the economy, the
Liberals are doing what they should have done in the first place.
The retroactivity requirement - which was either mean-spirited or dumb -
is gone. Additional job losses to privatization are capped at 600.
The same deal should have formed the basis for the back-to-work
legislation in the first place. And if the government had done that,
this damaging confrontation could have been avoided.
Footnote: How did this happen? One answer is that Liberal MLAs seemed to
have turned off their minds during debate on the back-to-work bill. In
hours of detailed examination, there was exactly one question from a
Liberal backbencher. Not one Liberal asked about retroactivity or any
other element of the deal.