Friday, August 19, 2005

Benefits outweigh risks in new deal for First Nations

VICTORIA - Give the Liberals' credit for a bold, somewhat risky, effort to forge a "New Relationship" with First Nations.
The five-page framework for sweeping change has been circulating through First Nations and industry for months, but has just become officially available on the government's web site.
It shows how far the Campbell government has moved since the days of the now ignored treaty referendum.
The New Relationship document promises government-to-government negotiations with First Nations. It commits the province to shared decision-making on land and resource management in areas claimed as traditional territories, and promises a share of the revenue and economic benefits. The government agrees to accept a broad definition of aboriginal title.
And the pact acknowledges that “the historical Aboriginal-Crown relationship in British Columbia has given rise to the present socio-economic disparity between First Nations and other British Columbians.”
The agreement even says that the government will work “to ensure that lands and resources are managed in accordance with First Nations laws, knowledge and values and that resource development is carried out in a sustainable manner including the primary responsibility of preserving healthy lands, resources and ecosystems for present and future generations.”
That's the kind of promise that's making industry nervous.
The big resource industry groups welcome anything that increases certainty about who owns the land and what the rules are. But they're worried, for example, about just what First Nations laws they're going to have to obey, and where those laws are written down.
And they wonder if the new revenue-sharing commitment means that the government will just cut First Nations in on a piece of the existing royalties and lease charges, or whether industry will be asked to come up with more money.
The worries have increased because this agreement was negotiated between the premier's office and the First Nations' groups. Nobody asked industry, or municipalities, MLAs, or even cabinet ministers, about how this would affect them.
That's not the only cause for concern. Premier Gordon Campbell talks about the relationship in terms of reconciliation and the overall state of life in the province. The government can't achieve its goals for health and education and the economy without a radical improvement in the lives of aboriginal people, he says.
But Ed John of the First Nations Summit, hardly a radical, says the new relationship means big changes on the ground, and an end to an era in which resource companies grew rich at the expense of First Nations.
It's always risky when two parties have such different understandings and expectations of an agreement. Someone is going to be disappointed, and perhaps angry.
Still, this is a positive step.
The Liberal government has moved a long way. In 2001, Campbell eliminated the aboriginal affairs ministry, placing the responsibility under the attorney general. (A mistake - the attorney general represents the province's legal interests. Hard-line positions are necessary in legal battles, but destructive in terms of building relationships.)
Now Tom Christensen is the new minister of aboriginal relations and reconciliation, reflecting the new relationship themes. The province is working with First Nations on new institutions to develop the government-to-government agreements on land use and revenue-sharing, and has promised funding to support the process.
There are risks in all this, but bigger potential rewards.
Treaty-making is proving to be slow, difficult and expensive. The resulting lack of certainty about land use has been a major drag on the B.C. economy.
And the lives of aboriginal people, as a whole, are a disgrace. Being born Indian means that it is much more likely that you will be poor, under-educated and sickly. The odds that you will end up in jail, or a suicide, are sharply higher. It's the kind of social disparity Canadians are quick to condemn in other countries.
It's time every child had a chance to make the most of the future.
The new relationship could be a start.
Footnote: The impetus for much of this work was last fall's Supreme Court of Canada ruling that the province had a duty to consult First Nations before making decisions affecting lands they claimed. The level of consultation required would vary with circumstances, the court ordered, and it recommended some sort of dispute resolution method to avoid more court cases. That lead to the much broader effort.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Teachers' strike looking like part of students' fall

VICTORIA - There's going to be a nasty shock this fall for parents who thought electing a Liberal government meant no school strikes.
Barring big change the battle between the BC Teachers' Federation and the government will lead to some sort of strike or job action this fall.
The campaign rhetoric left some people thinking that school strikes had been banned by the Liberals.
Not so. The Campbell government did change the law in 2002 to make education an essential service. But that doesn't mean an end to strikes.
It simple ensures that before a strike or lockout the Labour Relations Board must set essential service levels, just as in a health care dispute. Lawyers for both sides will make creative arguments about what essential means when it comes to schools, and the board will set out ground rules.
Parents won't like the results. The board has to ensure people who rely on the services aren't unduly harmed. But it also is bound to promote collective bargaining, so it sets essential service levels low enough that strikes still mean pain and an incentive for negotiations. (In the last BC Ferries job action, service on some routes to the Island was cut in half under the approved plan.)
Schools won't be open five days a week. Several districts have already gone to four-day school weeks to save money. If the government considered that acceptable, it will have a tough time arguing five days are now essential.
Two or three-day weeks, half days, combined classes, cancelled optional subjects - expect some or all of those to be part of the approved plan.
None of which will please parents. The reality is that we rely on schools for child care as well as education. For working parents, finding substitute child care will be costly, inconvenient and sometimes impossible. Businesses will be hit with higher absenteeism, and too young children will be fending for themselves.
None of this will last long. The Liberals, like the NDP government, will bring in legislation to end the strike, and ultimately impose a contract.
But it will still be a big disruption, and one that will leave some voters feeling betrayed.
Unless the union and the government find a way put aside their mutual contempt and come up with a solution that puts students first. (The union officially bargains with the BC Public School Employers' Association, but the association doesn't have the ability to address the key issues.)
So far, neither side seems willing to take the needed steps. Instead, the union and the government are fighting over issues that should be swept away.
The Liberals are all fired up about politics in the classroom, fretting about a BC Appeal Court decision giving teachers a right to talk about issues like class size in parent-teacher interviews, if they are relevant to the child. The reality is that this a non-problem. How many parents have complained after their eight-minute chat with a teacher?
And the BCTF is suing Gordon Campbell for defamation for his campaign claim that the union and the NDP had a secret plan to engineer a school strike last spring. Campbell went too far, but the case should be settled with an apology.
Even with the distractions pushed aside, it will be tough to reach an agreement. The government says the teachers must accept 0 and 0 in the first two years of the new contract, citing the wage freeze imposed just after they signed their last contract, which gave them 7.5 per cent over three years. Teachers want raises in all three years.
And the union wants a chance to negotiate class size limits and other working conditions, all previously negotiated terms of their contracts that the Liberals removed through legislation. That's not going to happen.
Both sides say they want to avoid disruption in the schools. But neither is doing much to head off the coming crash.
Footnote: There is a solution. The Wright report on teachers' bargaining completed last year outlined an alternative approach which acknowledges that teachers don't have a real right to strike, and substitutes conciliation and a form of arbitration. A future column will look at the risks and benefits of giving it a try now.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Time to take the big money out of politics

VICTORIA - It was wounding to find out just how dumb the Liberal big guys think I am.
The Liberals had to report that they raked in a huge amount in corporate donations to pay for their election campaign, a potential political problem.
So they cranked their spin machines up to warp drive and sent out a press release headlined "BC Liberals work to match NDP friends' war chest." The first two-thirds of the release railed about "the outlandish third-party spending from big labour" and the Liberals' plucky underdog efforts to raise money.
And then came the news. The Liberals raised $11.4 million between Jan. 1 and election day, almost $5 million more than they got in 2001. The NDP raised barely half as much, at just under $6 million.
OK, so the Liberals had a lot more money to spend. But there were still all those union campaigns, said party chief Kelly Reichert, and the Liberals worked "tooth-and-nail for donations at the grassroots level."
Maybe, if the grassroots you're talking about are found on the fairways of ritzy country clubs.
About 80 per cent of the Liberals' donations came from corporations and other businesses. Corporate donors paid a bigger share of the bills than they did in 2001.
The NDP were largely supported by individuals, getting less than one-third of their donations from unions.
But, Reichert thundered, the NDP's total doesn't include all the money unions spent on campaigns to defeat the Liberals. More than half the individuals and groups that registered as third party advertisers in this campaign were unions.
It is true that unions, like the BCGEU and BC Teachers' Federation, spent a lot of money ato boost the NDP's prospects. But then business groups spent a lot of money - though probably not as much - boosting the Liberals' prospects. My guess is that the Liberals and their supporters will probably still be the bigger spenders, although it could be close.
And that doesn't even take into account all of your money the Liberals spent on government ads that helped the party. The Liberals secretly went $7 million over the government advertising budget last year, with most of the extra spending going for those "Best Place on Earth" ads, with their striking resemblance to the Liberal campaign ads. If you're looking for unreported political spending, that's a place to start.
The Liberals' press release on their campaign fund-raising may have been an attempt to get out in front of the story, and to spin it in a positive way. The final campaign reports - including the lists of who gave how much - won't be available from Elections BC until Monday.
Instead they looked much like the Wizard of Oz in his palace, clutching at the curtain as Toto tugs on a corner, urging Dorothy and friends to pay no attention to the small man pulling the levers. And in the process the Liberals suggested that they had something they wanted to hide. (And ensured that the donation issue would make the news twice, this week and again when the full reports are out.)
The best lesson to be taken from all this is that the rules around political fund-raising and spending in B.C. need a major overhaul. The NDP and Greens have called for B.C. to ban both corporate and union donations, following the lead of Quebec, Manitoba and the federal government.
And the public is concerned that corporate and union donors expect special treatment, and that big money, not policies or public support, drives politics. (Almost 90 per cent of Canadians believe "people with money have a lot of influence over the government," according to a 2000 survey.)
Meanwhile the Liberals slam union donations; the NDP complains of corporate influence; the public grows more cynical.
Surely all parties agree that it's past time to reform a system that British Columbians, of all political stripes, agree is deeply flawed.
Footnote: Gordon Campbell has said he sees no need to change the current system. It is enough that donations are disclosed, he says, allowing the public to keep decide if big donors have special influence. But government decisions are often invisible, and few citizens will plow through the lists of thousands of donors.

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.