First contract legislation — rebuttal

Doing a little catch-up here after a week of long-distance travel on short notice. Scott Gillard, constituency assistant to MLA Howard Epstein, objected to the inference I drew from a brief first-contract strike at Summer Street Industries in New Glasgow, where professional union negotiators pursued rigid workplace rules with wilful indifference to the rights and sensibilities of the developmentally challenged men and women that organization serves.

The CUPE functionaries failed, thanks in part to pushback from their own members. Had the NDP government’s first-contract arbitration had been in place, I suggested, an arbitrator ignorant of disabilities issues could have effectively wrecked a wonderful non-profit organization. Gillard calls this the “my cousin Louise” argument:

No matter how valid the legislation, in this case, may be there will always be someone (my cousin Louise) who can share an exception to its effectiveness. I think it is a red herring. To oppose Bill 102 on the basis that, in a specific situation, it would not have served its intended purpose is a bit much.

Darrell Dexter - Throwing a bone (Tim Krochak phot/Chronicle-Herald)

You may have been able to provide and example of an exception to the benefit of the legislation but whether you are right or wrong on the implications of the legislation in this situation is irrelevant. Finding a specific situation where something may not work falls short of making a convincing case in opposition.

Good legislation is hopefully the goal of government. No government assumes their legislation is perfect. Frankly, it’s just this type of argument that reminds us of the complexity of a government’s legislative agenda. There’s always going to be a “my cousin Louise” type exception.

Gillard has a point. I was arguing from a very specific, though not unique, set of facts. and they have limited application to disputes involving conventional businesses. To be completely honest, I saw the first contract arbitration issue as an opportunity to lay out the disgraceful behaviour of a union that thinks of itself as progressive.

But what’s the case for Bill 102? What bad situation will it remedy?. Union people say over and over that collective bargaining works in Nova Scotia. For the most part, I think they are right. Why not let it play out? Why impose settlements on unwilling parties? After the jump, Gillard responds:

[I]t is a proactive piece of legislation. So when you ask what situation it remedies, I say it is not a reaction to a problem. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The first contract is often the hardest to negotiate. This is a fact. Negotiations can be drawn out, for whatever reason, over an extended period of time and can result in significant and unnecessary tension. While the legislation guarantees arbitration in the wake of failed negotiations, it is as much about providing a process by which the sides can come to agreement before arbitration.

It ensures support for both the employer and workers. It guides them through the process and only after a failure to arrive at a contract (now within 180 days) would the sides be asked to, themselves, come to agreement on the choice of an arbitrator.

This takes the stress off workers who want to unionize but fear a strike. It takes the ability of either side to negotiate in bad-faith (delay tactics, unreasonable demands, etc) away and forces a more genuine dialogue.

You’re right, unions do say collective bargaining works. This legislation builds on that by ensuring a timely first contract and by ensuring good faith negotiations on that first contract. The first round is less stressful, reduced strain on the employer/union relationship. This will obviously lead to more fruitful future negotiations.

The key point here, for me, is that this legislation is not about forced arbitration, it’s about avoiding long, unpleasant, and unfruitful negotiations. For the negotiating parties, the choice becomes good faith negotiating or a forced contract. Both sides will generally opt for the prior, no?

On your last point, if it did get to the point where a contract was imposed by an arbitrator, the contract is only valid for a year (if both sides agree that any part of the imposed contract should be changed, it can be changed during the year through normal bargaining) while the two parties learn to operate in good faith. Again, legislation designed for the long-term to prevent problems.