First-contract arbitration: the sky is(n't) falling

Eric Durnford says if working conditions in Nova Scotia now were the same as in 1984, he too would support first-contract arbitration. Durnford, a prominent labour lawyer who represents employers, was responding last week to a union presentation on why we need the law.

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Back in 1984, a CUPE official reminded the law amendments committee, workers at Keddys Nursing Manor in Halifax joined a union. Their employer refused to negotiate, suspending one union executive and forcing another worker to clean a floor with a toothbrush. It took the employees four years and an 18-month strike to win their first contract.

That was then. Now, Durnford says, Nova Scotia is a labour-relations utopia. We don’t need no first-contract-arbitration legislation.

Strangely, I can’t find any evidence Durnford—who was already an influential labour lawyer in 1984—spoke up for first-contract arbitration back when he says it might have been worth supporting.

Or perhaps not so strange. Self-interested supporters of the status quo inevitably claim that now—whenever now is—is the best-of-couldn’t-be-better times. And predict the sky’s collapse if it’s changed.

Last week, Corporate Chicken Littles Sobeys and Michelin—two of our biggest employers and, perhaps not coincidentally, two of our most successful government teat-suckers—lined up at law amendments to paint the sky black and gone.

Unions, they predcicted, would take advantage of the law to bamboozle their unsuspecting—and otherwise, of course, happy-happy—workers into signing union cards.

Reality check Number 1. Statistics show union membership is declining across the country, including in provinces with first-contract legislation.

In British Columbia, which has had first-contract arbitration since 1993, only 10 per cent of initial contracts go to arbitration, and fully one-third of those applications come from employers. Oops.

And such legislation, our concerned-only-for-what’s-best-for-the-province corporate spokes-folks also warned, will scare off potential investors.

Reality check Number 2. In 2007, Sobeys shelled out $260 million buy a supermarket chain in… uh, investment-slaughtering British Columbia.

Sobeys also currently operates 16 stores in Manitoba, all acquired long after that province’s supposedly draconian first-contract legislation came into effect.

Welcome to 2011.

Shades of Orwell’s 1984.
 

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