Monday, December 19, 2011

On industrial relations in Toronto.

It's pretty much a given at this point that Toronto's useful idiot of a mayor, the unfortunately duplicated (have you seen his brother?) Rob Ford, is on track to provoke a pointless war with the city's unions. In the interest of getting ahead of the curve for once, let me quickly explain how badly Ford has botched this.

Industrial Relations 101 -- or, more accurately, Remedial Industrial Relations -- teaches us that collective agreements don't change quickly. They just don't. Occasionally, in a rare situation, an employer can exert enough pressure on a union to get major concessions, such as if the industry in question is facing some sort of cataclysmic shift. Even more rarely, a union can exert enough pressure on an employer to get significant advantages, such as if the employer is incapable of waiting the union out.

But, the rule is that a collective agreement changes slowly. If you want to get a series of changes through, you have to commit to doing it over the long run.

Ford and his crack team of morons have broken this rule pretty decisively. I don't know -- I'm not sure how I could know -- but I strongly suspect that the city's negotiators have no significant background in industrial relations or labour negotiations, and may be treating this more like non-union hiring or contract negotiations between corporate entities. Either is insanely wrong, at the very least because you can't get lots of changes in a given round of bargaining.

Now, Ford has obviously tried to provoke a crisis in order to push the union to make all the concessions he wants, all at once. As his strategy has been exposed as total bullshit to many members of the public, chances are the unions've figured it out, too, and aren't going to play along.

That said, in any given round of bargaining, you can usually get one big change through if you're willing to have the inevitable fight -- strike or lockout plus back to work legislation and binding arbitration, plus convincing the arbitrator to go along with it (never all that easy when it comes to public sector bargaining). Mayor Miller pulled this off in the last round; he wanted an end to sick leave banking, and he got it. He didn't get exactly the policy he started with, but he got the banking to end; he gave on the details because it was the general point that he wanted to win on.

So, if Ford weren't a fool, he'd focus on one thing -- my guess would be an end to the so-called "jobs for life" provisions -- and push for that. He blew any opportunity to work with the union to get the change through bargaining, and there's no mega-crisis which would put enough pressure on the union to cave. He could stil try to get that one change through, via a clear messaging campaign against the provisions, a willingness to budge on every other issue, an honest admission that there will be a lockout in order to force the change through, and a clear argument that the premier could use to persuade the eventual arbitrator to write it into the contract. It's not ideal -- the ideal way to do it is to develop good working relationships with the union leadership -- but it's at least possible.

Instead, he's demanding hundreds of changes to the contract, while the union is asking for -- last time I checked -- cost of living adjustments to salary and benefits. This fails on every possible level. There's no crisis. The union is strongly opposed. The current premier needed union support to get elected, and needs support from at least one other party to get anything passed. (The only party that has currently voted with the Liberals, you'll note, is the NDP, who are unlikely to go along with anything that screws over workers.) The arbitrators are generally unfriendly to public officials trying to fool them into massively rewriting contracts.

In short, he has no freaking chance of winning this fight. All the union has to do is wait him out, while lobbying their contacts in the government and in the NDP. Sooner or later, the legislation will come down, it'll send everything to interest arbitration, and the arbitrator will refuse to make the changes Ford is demanding.

Yet, somehow, there are still people in this city who believe -- somehow, in some way -- Ford will get what he wants. This sort of dissociation from reality should disqualify people from getting a vote.

No comments: