Alex Binkley on labour unions

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This week in ...

The Binkley Report

A mature approach to labour relations

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

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01 December 2014 — The agreement by the Seaway Management Corp and Unifor, which represents the waterway’s 460 employees, to have an arbitrator settle contentious issues in a new labour contract may be a breakthrough in labour relations in Canada.
It’s one matter for a company or union to lock out employees or go on strike when the only parties likely to suffer from the action are the company and the workers. It’s their economic issues that are a stake. The disruption to the public is fairly minimal and consumers can shop from other stores or get services or products from alternate suppliers. It’s a completely different matter when, for example, the Seaway shuts down hurting farmers and other bulk commodity shippers that really have no choice but to use the waterway. Or when the railways or ports are closed because of a labour dispute. The economic fallout is spread across the country and naturally leads to calls for government intervention to limit the economic damage.
Back to work legislation, and all the political posturing that goes with it, is not the best way to produce a worthwhile contract. Simply denying workers in the federally regulated sector, which also includes banking and telecommunications, the right to strike is wrong-headed and probably would violate the constitution. Companies aren’t denied the right to close an unproductive operation. Labour relations should be about the employer and employees developing a mature enough relationship that they can negotiate ways of dealing with the constantly changing business pressures facing the company and the needs and aspirations of the employees.
Basically what the Seaway and Unifor did was settle as many matters as they could at the bargaining table for a new contract that runs to 2018. The unresolved issues will go to an arbitrator whose decisions both sides have agreed to abide by. As Ottawa oversees the mediation and arbitrator system for the federal sector, it must have an able and competent team of arbitrators whose independence and judgment are accepted by both sides. They must command the same respect as judges in the Federal and Supreme Court given the economic impact of their decisions. The company and the union must present their best arguments to the arbitrator who chooses one proposal or the other, which puts even more pressure on the company and the union to resolve or at least narrow their differences at the bargaining table. Resorting to an arbitrator is an admission of failure, but not as great a one as a lockout or strike.

But it’s a lot better than a widely-felt shutdown.

The details of the new contract that runs to March 31, 2018, won’t be revealed until the arbitrator rules on several contentious issues. While SMC and Unifor wouldn’t comment on what issues they had agreed to send to binding arbitration, the hot button matter for the union had been the company’s introduction of no hands mooring for specially-equipped ships passing through the Seaway locks.

Meanwhile shippers and shipping lines are making a final push to deliver as much cargo as possible before the shipping seasons wraps up at the end of December. They also need to catch some breaks in the weather if the Seaway is to come close the 40 million tonnes of freight it had haoped to handle this year.

The agreement between the Seaway and the Union “is positive for industry, labour, and the Seaway as we innovate and aim for increased trading,” said Robert Lewis-Manning, President of the Canadian Shipowners Association. Back when the union was threatening a strike, he had warned it could sink the Seaway’s amazing rebound after losing the first four weeks of the 2014 shipping season to heavy ice throughout the Great Lakes. Figures to the end of September showed tonnage was 5% higher than at the same point in 2013 and getting closer to the much better results posted in 2012.

“We have been meeting night and day the past week to reach a deal, and came to the conclusion that arbitration was the best way to resolve remaining issues,” Unifor National Representative Joel Fournier said. Both the union and the company plan early meetings with the arbitrator.

The Unifor had threatened to strike on Oct. 31, and then extended the deadline to Nov. 3. Late on Nov. 2, the two sides agreed to binding arbitration.

Faced with a possible strike, the Seaway had planned to implement a phased shutdown on its Montreal-Lake Ontario and Welland Canal locks to ensure no ships were trapped in either system in the event the works walked off the job. In the end “shipping continued virtually without any disruption,” said Seaway spokesman Andrew Bogara.

The union said the no hands mooring system to tie up ships in the Seaway locks was unsafe and would result in the layoff of workers who are needed to deal with emergencies. “We believe that having no one at the lock is not a good idea," said Fournier. "The risk of an environmental disaster with all of the dangerous cargo going through the Seaway is very real.”

The Seaway has begun installing the system, which involves a magnet-like device that holds a ship in place and eliminates the need to tie up and untie the ship with mooring lines.

Bogara said the system includes a heavy duty cable that would stop any ship that loses power or steering before it can damage Seaway facilities. “It works much like the arrestors on an aircraft carrier.” He said the employees currently engaged in mooring ships would work on maintenance and other jobs. “We would also have a roving team of workers who would assist ships not equipped with the no hands mooring technology.”