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Cohn: How some unions make the best — and worst — of tough times


Here’s some good news on labour relations you might have missed amid the bad news from the schoolyard: The Canadian Auto Workers reached a last-minute deal this week after going to the wall against Ford.

It’s a bittersweet victory for a union that has long led the labour movement in fighting for workers’ rights (full disclosure — my own union at the Star is likely to merge with the CAW soon): more takeaways, notably a weaker pay scale (the so-called grid); lower wages for new hires; and diluted pensions for all.

The CAW didn’t just roll over. Nor did it squawk about big bad corporate bullying or bolt from the bargaining table.

No, this savvy union took stock of the ugly reality of a stagnating economy, cognizant of the fact that a work stoppage could be ruinous — not just for their arch-capitalist employers, but ultimately their working-class members. The suspense isn’t over yet, because the Ford deal serves as a template for GM and Chrysler negotiations — a traditional “me-too” tactic that ensures parity.

Contrast that strategic approach — weighing the pain of compromise with the peril of confrontation — against the recent tactics of public school unions. In its dubious wisdom, the elementary teachers’ union boycotted bargaining from the get-go (complaining of tough-talking provincial interlocutors) and insisted on talking only with powerless local school boards — unlike the CAW, which talked at every level, top to bottom, simultaneously.

They were followed out the door by their high school brethren, who played negotiating footsie all summer. Two other unions representing Catholic and francophone teachers stayed at the table to thrash out a tough tradeoff (inserting the customary“me-too” clause to get whatever other unions get, just as in 2008, and much like CAW’s template tactic).

Now, after eschewing serious talks for six months, the public school unions are righteously apoplectic about anti-strike legislation passed pre-emptively by the governing Liberals with Tory support this month. But the high-minded union campaign on a point of principle will fall on deaf ears for very practical reasons.

Yes, teachers have every right to withdraw from voluntary extracurricular activities, even if that angers parents and flusters students. Many teachers are genuinely exercised, having heard only their unions’ self-pitying rhetoric about ruthless attacks on workers’ rights, pay scales, sick day payouts, and so on.

But they are wrong to expect sympathy or understanding from people who question the union strategy of orchestrating a de facto work-to-rule campaign that uses kids as pawns. Nor will they persuade people that teachers are hard done by after gaining 25 per cent in cumulative salary hikes since 2003. While autoworkers were taking pay cuts, giving up paid holidays or losing their jobs during the 2008 economic crisis, the government honoured its generous 3 per cent annual pay hikes to teachers through 2012.

Now, the jig is up. With a $ 14.5-billion deficit, the Liberal government has faced up to economic realities. The Tories would do the same. So would the NDP (as they once did). All three have pledged a balanced budget by 2017-18 — which requires reining in payroll costs.

The political devil is in the economic details, but not everyone is closing their eyes to it. College teachers represented by OPSEU signed a little-noticed pay freeze this month that preserved their grid, thanks to other savings. Like the CAW, it recognized the art of the possible — as opposed to posturing over process. Even the doctors have belatedly returned to the table, despite lingering bad blood.

Everyone in the broader public service is being zapped. In mid-July, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan issued a little-noticed letter to employers across the 1-million strong public sector that they were next up.

Essential workers — who are entitled to arbitration because they can’t strike — will also feel the pinch. Arbitrators who have long defied government pleas to take into account “ability to pay” (blithely suggesting tax increases) will also face new legislation to rein them in by requiring written decisions under tighter deadlines. Arbitrators will also have a harder time awarding generous settlements when everyone else in the public sector is getting zero.

After a long hot summer of often fruitless negotiations, a chill wind is blowing — with a winter pay freeze coming fast and furious.

mcohn@thestar.ca, twitter.com/reggcohn.

thestar.com – Opinion

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