Continued from part two.
It is the fear that transit unions will succeed in using arbitration as a tool to secure excessive wage and benefit increases from taxpayers that makes it sensible to demand changes to arbitration law before considering making transit an essential service. So long as transit workers retain the right to strike, municipalities will find it a challenge to operate a transit service that is both dependable and affordable. Taking away the right to strike may create a moral obligation to provide an alternative but this alternative must respect taxpayers and transit users as much as it does the workers. There is no sense in forcing labour disputes to arbitration if the cost of public transit will skyrocket as a result.
A Political Solution
Back in February, two months ahead of the Newmarket Chamber publishing its recommendation, the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party outlined a plan for arbitration reform in a series of news releases on their website. Their proposal would
Require arbitrators to base awards on a municipality's ability to pay without raising taxes (implicitly invalidating the
infinite ability to payarbitrators had previously ascribed to governments);
Place strict deadlines on the arbitration process, helping to ensure settlements accurately reflect the current economic situation in the affected municipality; and
Require arbitrators to justify their decisions in writing to provide better accountability.
The minority Liberal government adopted parts of this plan in their budget bill to curry favour with the Conservatives, from whom they needed support to get the budget passed. Left out was the ability-to-pay mandate, but the Liberals offered to propose legislation that would require written rationales from arbitrators and impose a twelve-month deadline on the whole process.
Schedule 68 of the original bill applied these measures to the Toronto Transit Commission Labour Disputes Resolution Act, the legislation that effectively designates the TTC an essential service and denies its employees the right to strike. With the passage of the budget bill, the amended act could perhaps have served as a template for transit systems across the province.
A Victory for the NDP
For better or worse, that is not what happened. To summarize the (sometimes dramatic) political wrangling of the last week, the Ontario New Democratic Party succeeded in voting down four key schedules of the budget bill that pertained to arbitration reform, among them Schedule 68. Speaking in parliament, NDP MPP Cindy Forster defended the existing arbitration process, arguing statistics show it is already working as intended:
For many years, I actually negotiated with the Ontario Nurses' Association in the hospital sector, in the community sector, in the homes sector… We went to arbitration for four different contracts, and it took four years to get them up to parity with the nurses in the homes for the aged in the Niagara region. So, arbitrators are looking at the ability to pay, and I think it would be a mistake trying to interfere in that neutral process. If employees do not have the right to strike, then they have to have the right to go to some process that will be fair and neutral to them.
After allowing the budget bill to pass in its modified state, the NDP mentioned arbitration specifically in its list of victories:
New Democrats preserved over half of the arbitration system, ensuring fairness for police, firefighters and ambulance workers
With the elimination of Schedule 68 from the final text of the budget bill, I doubt the Chambers of Commerce will continue to pursue essential-service designation for transit this year. Meanwhile, transit unions retain access to a strategy that seems designed to secure wage and benefit increases beyond what they can negotiate on their own.
However, the subject of arbitration reform could soon resurface in provincial politics. Liberal Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has apparently vowed to reintroduce arbitration reform in a new bill when the legislature reconvenes this September. Alternatively, the Liberals could choose to adopt a private member's bill introduced in April by PC MPP Randy Hillier that embodies the Conservatives' approach.
No doubt the debate over making public transit an essential service will resurface then as well.