Oct 082012
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Collective bargaining should really be bargaining.

by Ken Coran, OSSTF president and Ken Lewenza, CAW president

The labour relations scene in Ontario has been focused recently on two crucial sets of negotiations: education workers and auto workers. The contrast between the two should remind policy-makers of an important, enduring lesson.

When parties are allowed to freely reach a labour agreement, the resulting deal works better for them and for the whole economy. But when they aren’t allowed to freely negotiate, the consequences can be costly, unintended and far-reaching.

In the private sector, the Canadian Auto Workers union has just concluded new contracts with the Detroit Three automakers. This was a pivotal round of contract talks, the first since the companies emerged from the near-death experience of 2009. The challenge was to bargain a contract that recognizes and rewards auto workers for their contribution to the industry’s turnaround ­ but to do so in a way that enhances the case for critical future investments in Canadian plants.

The contract contained several innovative features aimed at achieving this goal, including lump sum bonuses to protect workers’ real incomes against inflation, and a new wage grid that encourages new hiring but without creating a permanent second tier of workers.

Wisely, government stayed out of the Detroit Three-Autoworkers negotiations, and a mutually acceptable deal was reached without disruption.

Anti-union critics might have argued that Canada’s economy was “too fragile” to risk a possible work stoppage in this vital industry, and that government should intervene to force a settlement. Wisely, government stayed out of the picture, and a mutually acceptable deal was reached without disruption. Secret-ballot ratification is the ultimate tool that holds negotiators accountable to the workers they represent; CAW members ratified their new contracts in strong numbers.

Compare this to the negotiations involving teachers and educational support workers. Here, too, all sides recognized that bargaining must reflect Ontario’s continuing economic challenges: including a shaky recovery, and a significant (if shrinking) provincial deficit. The unions’ goal was never to somehow wrest a big fat wage gain from cash-strapped school boards. In fact, the OSSTF indicated early on that it would accept a two-year freeze for teachers and support staff in line with the government’s stated guidelines.

But the government quickly sabotaged chances of a voluntary deal by demanding additional, very specific concessions in the contracts ­ while at the same time indicating it would interfere in any work stoppage — long before that prospect was even a possibility. That’s not just a violation of the Charter rights of Ontario teachers and education support staff (as the courts will almost certainly confirm), it’s also a recipe for dysfunctional, inefficient labour relations and for continuing turmoil in our classrooms.

This government meddling shifts the expectations of the employers, who now know they can demand all kinds of things without risking a work stoppage. It also reduces the compulsion on both sides to seek compromise, because they know someone else will have to eventually step in to make the difficult, final decisions.

Driven by optics more than economics, the McGuinty government is sabotaging the whole process of collective bargaining.

Bargaining in a tough economic environment is never fun. But experienced negotiators can find their way through, crafting solutions that work for both parties. In the case of teachers and education support staff, however, government never allowed this process to do its job. Now, even worse, Queen’s Park wants to apply the same ham-handed approach to the entire broader public sector.

Here’s the core difference between the two sets of negotiations. In the auto talks, government allowed the parties to find their own way to a compromise.

Because the deal was negotiated, not dictated, it could be tailored to reflect the industry’s particular circumstances: delivering gains to the workers, but savings and efficiencies to the companies at the same time. Both sides took responsibility for making difficult choices and trade-offs. And both sides would have to face the consequences if discussions broke down. Because it was attained voluntarily, the new contract enjoys a “buy-in” from both sides that will be essential for continuing to advance productivity in Ontario’s world-beating auto plants.

In our schools, however, government just charged right in, trying to predetermine and micro-manage the final outcome. Driven by optics more than economics, the McGuinty government is sabotaging the whole process of collective bargaining, and undermining the important improvements in education that have been a hallmark of its time in office.

Finance Minister Dwight Duncan and other government leaders have been telling teachers and support staff to “suck it up,” stop whining, and learn from the hardships experienced in recent years by Ontario autoworkers.

But in fact, the lesson from the auto industry for our education system (and all our public services) is quite different. The lesson is that free collective bargaining works. Times may be tough, but experienced, sensible negotiators can craft solutions that reflect the times, and that work for all sides. To do so, however, they must be given the tools, and the freedom, to do their job.

Ken Coran is president of the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation. Ken Lewenza is president of the Canadian Auto Workers.

This article appeared in the Toronto Star.

About Ken Coran and Ken Lewenza

Ken Coran is President of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation.





Ken Lewenza is the National President of the Canadian Auto Workers union.



© Copyright 2012 Ken Coran and Ken Lewenza, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca

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