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
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
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