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Anna Wittich, left, with sign, and Magdalena Schoenmakers, seated, join locked-out Electro-Motive workers on the picket line Friday in London, Ont. The Caterpillar plant's unionized workers were locked out of the factory Jan. 1, 2012. (Mark Spowart for The Globe and Mail/Mark Spowart for The Globe and Mail)
Anna Wittich, left, with sign, and Magdalena Schoenmakers, seated, join locked-out Electro-Motive workers on the picket line Friday in London, Ont. The Caterpillar plant's unionized workers were locked out of the factory Jan. 1, 2012. (Mark Spowart for The Globe and Mail/Mark Spowart for The Globe and Mail)

Background

Bracing for trouble on the picket line Add to ...

Vancouver labour relations consultant David Shepherdson, author of a recent Conference Board of Canada report warning of labour strife to come, says the currency is behind much of the labour conflict.

“With the loonie at parity, much of that advantage is gone. So it puts a lot of pressure on Canadian manufacturers,” Mr. Shepherdson said.

Bracing for the storm

The story of possible picket-line conflict in the coming year is not a uniform one across Canada. The resource boom in the West is continuing to push wages in Alberta and elsewhere upward, while employers wrestle not with angry workers but with acute shortages of skilled ones.

And no one is predicting a year that will see the number of hours lost to strikes or lockouts approach the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s, when confrontational labour relations paralyzed workplaces in an era of stagflation, the puzzling mix of stagnant economic growth and runaway inflation. For the past decade, there has been only a fraction of the labour disruptions of a generation ago, and the numbers have been mostly flat from year to year.

But it could be the worst year in a while, especially in Ontario. Mr. Shepherdson said the auto talks will be a flash point, as the Detroit Three will seek to get Canadian auto workers to accept pay increases based on profits, a concept accepted by the U.S. United Auto Workers, but long resisted by the CAW. Indeed, it was behind its split from the UAW in 1984.

Other observers are more optimistic that both sides will blink, given the stakes, which remain high as the economy sputters, and find a Canadian-style compromise.

Auto industry consultant Dennis DesRosiers says he is cautiously optimistic confrontations can be avoided.

“If you look at the state of the industry, the demonstration effect of the last three years of bankruptcies and restructurings, you would think that a labour leader that cannot find middle ground would be an absolute idiot,” Mr. DesRosiers said, adding that management must also remember what workers have already given up .

“The workers gave up a lot to save GM and Chrysler, and to some degree Ford,” he said. “And so you’d think that now that times are improving slightly that there would be some reward for them as well.”

Back on the picket line at Electro-Motive in London, however, compromise looks like a distant dream. Mr. Mott, who has worked at the company for three years after spending time at various U.S plants, said the wage cuts at his workplace and elsewhere put Canada’s middle class, and the society it has created, at risk.

“These people are the ones that provide taxpayer money to governments,” he said. “If we don’t have these middle-class people, these programs that we all enjoy like health care and all that other stuff, libraries, we can’t have them. If these corporations keep undercutting us, and moving the jobs out of the country, there’s going to be nothing left.”

_______________________________

UNIONS BARGAINING IN 2012

Selected organizations, number of employees

Public Sector

Health Employers Association of B.C., 93,850

Government of Ontario, 86,640

Toronto District School Board, 35,840

Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations, 31,920

Canada Revenue Agency, 31,620

Government of British Columbia, 29,000

Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, 25,250

Regional Health Authorities of Manitoba, 14,250

HBA Services, 13,000

Ontario Power Generation, 11,650

University of Alberta, 11,100

Peel, Ont., District School Board, 11,060

College Compensation and Appointments Council, 10,500

Government of Saskatchewan, 10,000

Government of New Brunswick, 8,000

Government of Nova Scotia, 7,700

York, Ont., Region District School Board, 7,140

Ville de Montréal, 6,860

Calgary School District No. 19, 6,520

Toronto Catholic District School Board, 6,060

Total 457,960

Private sector

Canadian Media Production Association, 28,000

General Motors of Canada, 12,080

Chrysler Canada, 8,000

Ford Motor Co. of Canada, 7,600

Real Canadian Superstore, 6,800

Brewers Retail Inc., 6,510

Food Basics franchises, 6,500

Professional Association of Canadian Theatres, 5,500

Bell Canada, 5,250

Calgary Co-operative Association Ltd., 3,200

Bombardier Aerospace, de Havilland Division, 2,600

NDT Management Association, 2,240

Hospitality Industrial Relations, 2,200

Canadian Pacific Railway, 2,050

Total 98,530

Source: HRSDC.

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