Since the last election, the Conservative government has made use of back-to-work legislation for Canada Post and Air Canada workers – even though Air Canada pilots, mechanics and baggage handlers weren’t even off the job yet. But while the NDP – traditionally the party of labour – has often decried its use and famously filibustered the first instance of such a bill, there are those on the small-c conservative side who also see the use of such legislation as detrimental.
Progressive Conservative Senator Elaine McCoy was provincial labour minister in the Don Getty government in Alberta back in 1989, and saw some major strikes during her time in office, including a teacher’s strike and an illegal strike by social workers. Her perspective comes from those experiences.
Labour relations are about the balance of power between labour and management, and the financial pressure that a strike or lockout can place on the other party, McCoy says, and back-to-work legislation destroys the balance of power.
“You tilt the balance of power by putting the full weight of the state on the one side, and it is really on one side, because it means that the revenues to the management continue,” McCoy says. “There’s no benefit to the workers. Suddenly you’ve removed all penalty from management.”
Back-to-work legislation also erodes the close working relationship between workers and management, which should be based on respect.
“What you get is resentment on labour’s side,” McCoy says. “It builds, and therefore much less desire to come to agreement of any sort, and a desire to get revenge. When you encourage one side to gloat and bully, and the other side to want revenge and bully, you what you have is long-term unrest. You resolve the immediate, but you plant the seeds for more trouble in the long term.”
As for the strikes that happened under her watch, McCoy kept those principles in mind.
“When the teachers went out on strike, we had to bring additional people into my office to answer the phones, because everybody’s grandmother and everybody’s parent was phoning to say ‘get those teachers back to work. I can’t handle the day care,’” McCoy recalls. “And indeed, there were quite a few members of caucus who wanted to use the sledgehammer and use back-to-work legislation, but I had to talk them down because as I say, it might give you an immediate Band-Aid, but it doesn’t resolve the underlying situation.”
This was also the case with the illegal strike by social workers.
“Some labour ministers feel they should get involved themselves,” McCoy says. “I never felt that personally I should go to the bargaining table. I didn’t have that kind of training or skill, but what I did do was use the services of some people who were well respected in the labour relations field to work behind the scenes to help the two sides get together quietly and to iron out their differences. Yeah it took a week or ten days, but they did ultimately, and everyone walked away satisfied.”
Judging the current labour situation and the instances of legislation but forward to date, McCoy says that if she were a federal labour minister, she would be reluctant to do any kind of back-to-work legislation simply because it’s bad public policy.
“I think the current government is sowing the seeds of discontent and labour unrest, which is going to be more disruptive in the long run than a strike or lockout situation would have been,” McCoy says.
Neither does she buy the argument that the economy is too fragile.
“There would have been a great deal of pressure on the labour and management teams to get back to work, but that’s part of the bargaining power,” McCoy says. “There is always in these public service kinds of situations, an attempt by both labour and management to win the hearts of the public, and sometimes management succeeds and sometimes labour succeeds in doing that. But public opinion is important. Air Canada has to respond to its customers and the union has to be careful that it doesn’t alienate public opinion because that doesn’t do it any good in the long run either.”