What do the stats tell us?

Industries facing structural change most vulnerable to drawn-out strikes and lockouts
By Gordon Sova
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/28/2006

The tables below tell the story of a relatively constant rate in employers locking out their workers, and of a propensity of unions to go on strike fluctuating with the strength of growth in the economy. Nothing surprising there. The numbers, however, may hide as much as they relate. A look at the specific disruptions making up these figures reveals a more interesting story.

Most of Canada’s largest telecoms, Bell, Telus, MTS and Aliant, have been involved in work stoppages, resulting in more than 50,000 person-days of work lost since 1995. So have Canada Post, the CBC, Videotron and Bell’s subsidiary Entourage. Other significant stoppages occurred in the supermarket sector, in meat packing and in paper and wood products.

Several of the large time-lost disruptions in the service industries can be put down to immature bargaining relationships. Manufacturing, especially sectors such as auto parts, machinery, primary metal and fabricated metal, is conspicuous by its absence from the statistics.

What conclusions can we draw from this? First, and contrary to what so many on the right and the left of the political spectrum contend, employers and unions are generally responsible economic actors. Unions do not go on strike for pie-in-the-sky demands; employers do not lock out workers in an effort to lower costs to undercut their competitors. In dollar-and-cents terms, the income lost in a prolonged strike or lockout may never be made up.

The significant strikes and lockouts over the last decade are found overwhelmingly in industries facing structural change. This is why we see the same scenario being played out over and over across an industry, as with airline and telecom companies.

Mature bargaining relationships can weather wage freezes, layoffs and benefit reductions. What they have more difficulty with is accepting new conditions of work that strike at the bargaining unit: changes that leave work vulnerable to contracting out, deprive senior employees of hard-fought protections, divest jobs of variety and interest and dismantle the rewards for which employees have invested time and study.

Sixty-one British Columbia projectionists, members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes, lost an astounding 20,260 days of work between 1998 and 2000 because what had been a skilled and well-paid job became almost a menial task as a result of technological change. Meat packers in plant after plant had to face the reality that their industry could no longer provide a middle-class income. Skilled technicians saw their work being taken over by computers; store butchers were displaced by ready-cut meat.

In the private sector, supermarkets in competition with Sam’s Club will be facing these pressures. In the public sector, it will continue to be non-core services such as food preparation and cleaning. However, there are creative ways to meet these challenges without one side having to lie down and play dead. With patience and effort, they can be found.

Gordon Sova is editor of Canadian HR Reporter’s sister publication CLV Reports, newsletters that report on labour relations. He can be reached at (416) 298-5141 ext. 5129 or

gordon.sova@thomson.com

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Labour disruptions

How many days have been lost

Below are statistics provided by the Workplace Information Directorate, covering bargaining units of all sizes. Work stoppages that begin as strikes but end up as lockouts are counted here as lockouts.

Strike

YearTotal numberWorkers involvedPerson-days not worked% of working time
1995289116,9171,254,3600.04
1996285271,0273,056,1300.10
1997226244,1052,960,1600.10
1998325230,6132,193,8000.07
1999345143,7041,988,6200.06
2000319134,0621,408,6100.04
2001329213,3101,881,2400.06
2002235158,0602,354,8700.07
200320666,9791,169,6420.03
2004241253,9853,061,2180.09
2005 258419,6533,680,2320.10

Lockout

YearTotal numberWorkers involvedPerson-days not worked% of working time
19953932,304328,7100.01
1996454,778212,9300.01
19975813,656647,5500.02
19985613,791250,0700.01
19996816,445453,9600.01
2000609,733248,1800.01
2001527,835317,6100.01
2002599,942678,5600.02
20036014,205566,6700.02
2004576,046163,3100.00
2005359,206427,1800.01

Source: Workplace Information Directorate, HRSDC

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