U.S. and Canadian Labor: Convergence at Whose Expense?

Article excerpt

Convergence is coming. Things will get worse for labor in Canada until and unless they get better for unions in the United States. Not mainly the Free Trade Agreement, nor the Charter, nor regressive industrial relations laws in Nova Scotia, Alberta, and British Columbia but mostly the mobility of capital will undermine labor's power. The Americanizing of Canadian industrial relations and the downsizing of Canadian unions will not occur without a hell of a fight but it will occur unless or until the United States labor movement succeeds in revitalizing itself, perhaps sooner than it might otherwise, as a result of its recent envious, but still superficial, interest in the accomplishments of its Canadian sisters and brothers.

Canadians have long known that we in the United States knew little and, until recently, cared less about industrial relations in Canada. Many Canadian industrial relations specialists, though they study in and research about the United States, do not fully understand the enormous and widening gap between us. Camouflaged as the phenomena are by an apparently common language and superficially similar (i.e., Wagner-like) labor laws, the facts are that our unions and our labor relations are distancing themselves, each from the other, even as our businesses and trade relations converge toward that total integration which will make it impossible to separate them. My thesis is that such dichotomy between the industrial relations superstructure and the economic foundations of our societies cannot long endure.

It is relatively easy to illustrate these disparities in the area of unionism and labor-management relations. There is excellent research, particularly from a Canadian perspective, on union density and industrial relations legislation and practice. Therefore, I will devote myself mostly the non-collectively bargained rights and conditions of individual workers, with or without unions. I will attempt to show how these individual rights illuminate the depth of our divergence, impact upon the collective rights of workers in unions, and would make any convergence of our industrial relations situations redound to the detriment of Canadian workers.

But, first, some reflections on the industrial relations laws and behaviors in the United States. While there is some debate about the cause/effect relationship between legislation and union power, laws and their administration do matter. Richard Trinclisti, Assistant Director of Organizing for the United Mine Workers of America, immediately after the Pittston settlement, asserted, "Strikes are no longer an effective weapon in labor's arsenal. We must find an alternative because the legal deck is stacked against unions."

He was referring primarily to the problem of replacement workers. At Pittston there was a possibility of a settlement because, and only because, the company had a non-union mine to which it could transfer the scabs. In another coal strike, the local management (of a Canadian corporation) frustrated a potential buyout by a union firm by promising the strikebreakers permanent jobs. Thus, the managers created a potentially costly breach of contract suit by the strikebreakers and used the threat of this suit to frustrate the buyout and protect their own jobs--a new form of golden parachute.

By contrast, the 1989 telephone strikes were able to be settled because there were no strikebreakers--supervisors operated the phones. The Eastern Airlines and Greyhound Bus strikes will or will not be settled depending on a resolution of the replacement issue. It should be obvious that it is difficult to settle a strike if the strikers have no jobs to which to return. The permanent replacement phenomenon led James Molatsi, President of the National Union of Mineworkers in South Africa, to wonder, "In South Africa, the laws hold that if one goes on strike, he is fired. In the United States, if you strike, they hire permanent replacements. …