Continued from part one.
The Evidence from Emergency Services
Historically, essential-service designation has been reserved for true emergency services: Police, fire, and emergency medical services (EMS), a strike by any of which could pose a genuine threat to the public's safety. For years, labour disputes involving these workers' unions have necessarily been settled through binding arbitration, the experience from which is instructional.
A position paper (PDF link) released by the Emergency Services Steering Committee (ESSC), titled
Escalating Emergency Services Labour Costs and the Ontario Taxpayers' Ability to Pay, tells the story: Workers whose compensation is decided through binding arbitration have enjoyed wage and benefit increases outpacing those of workers in other occupations, in both the public and private sectors, and in some cases outpacing the cost of living itself by a considerable margin. In other words, the compensation awarded to these workers has been rising faster than that of the taxpayers forced to pay for it, taxpayers who can scarcely hope to enjoy the same benefits they nonetheless become obligated to fund.
Like the Chambers of Commerce the ESSC has called for a governmental review of this process, pointing out the increasing burden it is placing on municipalities and noting that the arbitrators issuing these generous awards seem to be ignoring the requirement they consider an employer's (in this case, the taxpayers') ability to pay when making their decisions. In fact, this oversight may be intentional. Quoting an editorial in the Toronto Star:
Arbitrators are fiercely independent, so in the Mike Harris years the government tried to tie their hands with legislation requiring them to take account of the employer'sability to pay.Arbitrators effectively circumvented that legislation by finding that governments have an infinite ability to pay by raising taxes or running deficits.
While arbitration is frequently billed as a
neutral solution to labour disputes, historically it has granted generous awards to unionized workers at the expense of government employers. And when this happens, it is taxpayers like you and I who end up footing the bill.
The Solution of First Resort
Naturally the unions are well aware of this situation. Although public transit does not yet enjoy essential-service status in Ontario (outside of Toronto), in recent years transit unions have seemed to make binding arbitration a go-to strategy in labour disputes instead of a solution of last resort, presumably in an attempt to receive the same sort of generous settlements arbitration has historically bestowed on emergency-services workers. And there is little cost to them in doing so. Jeff Jacoby, a conservative op-ed columnist for the Boston Globe, explains in his article, "Arbitration's Intolerable Bind" (emphasis mine):
As state and local governments have learned to their chagrin, once binding arbitration becomes part of the collective-bargaining process, it doesn't facilitate compromise—it undermines it. Unions quickly figure out that they risk nothing by making extreme salary or benefit demands, rejecting reasonable counteroffers, and then waiting for the ensuing impasse to go to an arbitrator. How can they lose? They know that the arbitrator will almost never award public employees less than the government's final offer.
I believe we witnessed precisely this strategy during the recent three-month transit strike here in York Region, which was precipitated in part by the
extreme salary or benefit demands (PDF link) made by one of the two unions representing York Region Transit operators, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1587. After about two weeks of striking and no productive talks with its employers Local 1587 raised the call for binding arbitration, citing the results of a poll it had itself conducted to obscure its motivation.
Throughout the strike both Local 1587 and the other union involved, ATU Local 113, repeatedly pushed binding arbitration as a solution, using such words as
neutral to describe it. From the original call for arbitration linked above (emphasis mine):
The union has written to York Regional Chairman Bill Fisch saying that they will agree to arbitration and end the strike immediately if [their employers] also agree in writing to submit the dispute to neutral arbitrators.
The gap between the union and the YRT contractors is too great. There is no resolution in sight. In such circumstances, arbitration is the way to go. It's a fair process and it will end the strike,wrote Ray Doyle, President of ATU Local 1587, which represents the Miller and First Student workers, and Bob Kinnear, President of ATU Local 113, which represents the VIVA workers.
From a post by Local 113 on their website in December:
Kinnear reiterated the union’s six-week old offer to stop the strike immediately and go to neutral, binding arbitration.
There was no need for all the hardship this strike has caused for both riders and workers for the past six weeks,he said.Why this $50 billion-a-year French-owned company [Veolia] with more than 300,000 employees world-wide is afraid of a neutral arbitration process involving just 220 of those employees is baffling.
In Halifax, members of ATU Local 508—who went on strike February 2nd, just days after the end of the strike here in York Region—were even bolder. After a similar two-week period the union raised its own call for binding arbitration, this time with made-in-advance t-shirts and posters:
Halifax's striking transit workers have votedunanimouslyfor a solution to the 13-day old work stoppage, union president Ken Wilson says…
Transit workers were well prepared for the move, which falls on Valentine's Day, sporting red shirts and placards with heart-shaped messages readingArbitration is the answerandHave a Heart Mayor. Put us back to work.
There's no doubt in my mind Local 508's leaders had arbitration as a goal from day one.
To be continued in a third part.