Strike Processes in Play

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If you live in Ontario, you may be aware of the current escalating labour dispute between the provincial government and three of the unions (ETFO, OSSTF, and OECTA) representing English elementary and secondary school teachers in the province. As of January 2020, it appears that negotiations at the bargaining table have stalled, the teacher unions have implemented a series of rotating strikes across the province, and the government has not offered any public statements about a possible resolution to this dispute being in sight.

What is common to all of the parties, at this point in time, is that they seem to be caught in a classically entrenched, positional struggle. This means that nobody is willing to make the first move out of their position, or stance, to get back to the bargaining table to negotiate a resolution. Instead of being focused on negotiations with each other, the parties are focusing on the process of escalation, in order to find leverage to use as a pressure tactic against one another.

From a labour relations process, this dispute is unfolding as it should be. How it may end, is explored by Global News in this recent video post and written analysis.

As noted by Global News, there are options which all of the involved parties—unions and government—need to consider as they try to find their way out of the current conflict.

Which option the parties choose to take will be determined by their need to either maintain a positional stance and keep the escalation of pressure mounting, or they may find a need to relieve that pressure and make a move out of position, back to the bargaining table to re-start negotiated discussions. Either approach will provide a resolution.

Continued escalation may result in prolonged strikes, back-to-work legislation, and/or an arbitrated decision that forces a resolution onto all of the parties. A negotiated settlement, however, means that the parties themselves must come up with solutions that they can all agree upon, and live with for the duration of a renewed collective agreement. In both approaches, the end result will be a resolution of the dispute.

The degree to which the parties will be satisfied with the results, and the means of resolution used to get there, will be entirely up to them, and the constituents that they serve.

Discussion Questions:

  1. If you were representing the government, would you prefer to have a negotiated settlement, or a settlement achieved through an arbitrated decision? Explain your rationale.
  2. What is the leverage that unions hope to achieve through the escalation of strike action?
  3. According to the article and video, what are the issues for each of the parties involved in this dispute?
  4. How would you propose to resolve this dispute? Explain your rationale.

The General Labour Strike Lives On

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During a recent lecture, a student asked, “Come on, why do we have to learn about the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike? That was over 100 years ago. There was no income tax and only a few people even had indoor plumbing.”

Society, politics, and the economy have changed drastically in 100 years, but the tools for managing the relationship between capital and labour have not.

The withdrawal of labour, more commonly known as the “strike,” is still the only tool workers have to assert collective power to counterbalance the power of the employer. It may not be as accepted today as it once was, but it is still as effective. Let’s review some of the recent world news headlines:

The strike is becoming the most utilized tool in the union movement arsenal globally as well, which is demonstrated by what is happening in France. The largest general labour strike in decades for France is currently taking place, and have spurred on the following events:

  • Over 800,000 workers followed their union leaders and went out on strike.
  • Schools were shut down.
  • France’s main energy utility had to cut their power generation by 10%.
  • Transit systems had to be severely restricted.

The general labour strike is the largest tool unions have to demonstrate their collective voice. It was used 100 years ago, it is being used now, and it will probably continue to be used in another 100 years if history repeats itself, as it usually does.

This is why knowing about the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike is still relevant, and important to understand labour relations in today’s context.

Discussion Question:

Research the reasons behind the Ontario teachers’ job actions, and France’s general labour strike. Create an executive summary of the causes of the job actions, outlining the similarities and differences between the two labour disputes.

Settlement Means Silence

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A recent case resulting from the termination of a unionized employee, provides us with some interesting insights into the grievance and settlement processes, which include the provision of confidentiality agreements.

Click here to read the details of the case as reported by the CBC.

Click here to read a legal opinion about the results of this case.

As we know from our labour relations studies, the union is the sole legal representative for the employees who are members of the bargaining unit or association. This means that the union speaks for the employee/member. It is the union who, typically, negotiates the terms and conditions of any settlement agreement that arises from the grievance process on behalf of the employee/member. This does not mean that the employee/member (who is the grievor in this case) does not participate in the settlement processes. The union is obligated to ensure that they represent the best interests of the grievor which includes making sure that the member/employee is present, participates and is fully cognizant of the details of any settlement document.

Settlement documents are considered valid and enforceable when they are ‘fully executed’. This means that all parties to the settlement sign and agree to the terms including the employee/member. It is typical to see both the employee/member’s signature and the union’s signature on a settlement document, along with those of the employer.  A signed settlement document is a legally binding contract. Should one of the parties break the terms of the contract, the entire document may be considered null and void. In this case, it should be no surprise to anyone that, once the terms of the contract were breached by the grievor and continued to be breached after receiving a clear warning from Arbitrator Kaplan to stop breaching the agreed upon terms, that the grievor ended up with nothing as a result.

When an employee is terminated for cause, the employer is relieved of their obligations to pay severance or notice. However, through the grievance and arbitration procedures, the union will argue that the employer had no right to terminate the employee for cause. Whether or not the actions of the employer were justified become the focal point of the case and if not justified, one of the remedies may be payment in lieu of notice or severance provisions by the employer to the terminated employee/member. In this case, under the agreed upon terms of settlement, it seems that the grievor would have received some kind of monetary compensation in order to bring closure to this case. It is possible that the termination for cause may or may not have been justified as the parties agreed to settle the grievance before proceeding to a full arbitration hearing.  Once the settlement was signed, no further action on this case would have taken place had the parties (including the grievor) abided by the terms of settlement.

At the end of the day, however, the grievor ended up where he began at the beginning of the grievance process – without a job, without any compensation for the loss of that job and perhaps with some public damage to his reputation. All of which seems to be as a result of his own making.

Discussion Questions:

  1. As the Union representative in this case, how would you have handled the actions of the grievor?
  2. This case starts with the employee’s termination for cause. Why do you think the actions of the employer (the University) were grieved by the union?
  3. Do you think the final decision by Arbitrator Kaplan was justified? Explain your rationale.

Labour Strife at Amazon Canada

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Amazon Canada, according to its website, is the largest online retailer in the country. Customers can shop for ‘millions of items’ that are delivered to them within days of purchase. It is an industry power house that continues to dominate the retail landscape. Sales have increased at record rates for Canadian businesses shipping through Amazon over the past fiscal year.

Click here to read about Amazon Canada’s record sales. 

Amazon’s mission statement is “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company”. In light of this statement and given the evidence of record growth, it seems clear that the company is thriving in the achievement of that mission.

All is not so rosy, however, on the employee and labour relations side of Amazon Canada’s growth ledger.

Since 2017, Amazon Canada has been facing allegations of numerous labour-related complaints. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada (UFCW Canada) has filed a complaint with the Labour Relations Board of Ontario, alleging that Amazon Canada has interfered with the legal right of employees to certify and become members of a union. UFCW Canada has claimed unfair labour practices on the part of Amazon Canada, including anti-union messaging, closing of branches and termination of employees who organized or participated in union drives in specific locations.

Click here to read about the labour complaints against Amazon Canada.

Furthermore, there are allegations that organizational leaders held ‘secret meetings’ in 2017 that focused on anti-union messages and practices.

Click here to read the allegations about ‘secret meetings’ with Amazon Canada delivery companies.

As noted in both articles, these allegations of unfair labour practices are now part of the legal proceedings underway with the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB).  If indeed the allegations are proven to be true, the OLRB may be able to impose numerous remedies which may include the reinstatement of the terminated employees and, possibly, certification as a result of management interference in a legitimate process based on the freedom and the right to unionize. If, on the other hand, the allegations are not upheld, it will be interesting to see if the union will continue in its long-term efforts to unionize Amazon Canada workers and their affiliates.

In the meantime, there is no doubt that Amazon Canada will continue in its efforts to dominate on-line shopping and delivery around the world.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Identify the legislation in Ontario that gives employees the right to certify?
  2. What are the potential risks to Amazon in their stance against certification?
  3. How does a non-union environment benefit Amazon and its workers?
  4. Does the alleged anti-union stance at Amazon Canada have any impact on your on-line purchasing and shopping patterns? Explain your rationale.