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Tense union negotiations the new norm?

It’s easy to see that that role of workers’ unions is changing, and unions no longer have the respect or power they once had. A couple of recent events in Ontario make that increasingly clear.

You’ve probably heard by now that Caterpillar, the heavy machinery giant has shut its Electro-Motive plant in London, Ontario, after locking out its employees and giving them an ultimatum that they couldn’t accept—a pay cut of up to 50 percent. The company has moved the operation to another plant in the United States. The jobs are gone, but the workers still hope to get a reasonable severance package, which is more than unionized workers in some industries—steel in Hamilton, for example—have got when their jobs went south, overseas or just plain disappeared.

In Toronto, the city has been struggling with its outside workers for some years now. Many residents lost their sympathy for the unionized workers during the garbage strike in 2009. The current administration has hammered home the notion that unionized workers have got gold-plated contracts with “jobs-for-life” clauses. This strategy has taken care of what little sympathy remained among residents. But the two sides have managed to strike a deal, despite threats of lockout and simply ripping up the contract and imposing a new one. Find the details of the new contract at the CBC.

Toronto’s mayor has taken steps to contract out services, such as garbage collection, that were once performed by unions, and citizens seem keen to turn Toronto into a post-union operation.

So what’s this all about? Is this just how union relations work in the globalized and unsettled economy? Are unionized workers’ demands too great for these austere times? Are unions relevant when a company can just up and leave without a second thought to its obligations? Is there an alternative model for employees to collectively bargain and maintain their rights?

It’s clear that union culture remains entrenched in the workplace, particularly in certain industries and public service, but I will not be surprised to see significant new developments in union/employee relations over the next several years, for better or for worse, as more people compete for scarcer jobs of lower quality. Surely the bad times will end, but what will the labour landscape look like when they do?

Adam Gorley
First Reference Internal Controls, Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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One thought on “Tense union negotiations the new norm?
  • I must admit I am a little surprised at the outcome of the Toronto talks. The Caterpillar example begs the question: is any job better than no job? I will be watching what the inside Toronto workers do.