Collective bargaining is democracy at work (Guest commentary)

Influence significant part of Canadian employment relations
By Mark Thompson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/03/2007

With a civic strike that has been needlessly prolonged in Vancouver and a major stoppage in the forestry sector that seems destined to last even longer, British Columbians might be asking why they have to be inconvenienced by labour disputes.

This question is best answered in the context of Canadian democracy.

The place of collective bargaining is debated in primarily economic terms. The parties focus on the costs of demands and concessions. Third parties estimate the financial losses caused by work stoppages. Economists study the wage benefits unionized workers receive. Employers are concerned about the costs of restrictions on their right to manage.

Little attention is directed at the aspirations, frustrations, satisfactions or fears of workers represented in bargaining.

What recourse do they have if their employer wants to terminate them because it believes a service can be delivered less expensively by an outside contractor?

How can they respond to a supervisor who treats them unfairly in a job they fundamentally enjoy? If workers are dissatisfied with their conditions, must they resign and start another career to obtain relief?

Democratic societies address these issues through collective bargaining.

Canadians rightly pride ourselves on our political freedoms. We can express our views, however unpopular, with little fear of official retribution.

Citizens form groups to promote their political or social views. They lobby government and the media to persuade others to agree with their opinions. The justice system protects them from abuses of authority.

For most Canadians, these freedoms end at the door to the workplace. The employer can restrict expressions of their views on working conditions or any other subject, with only modest limits imposed by the law. Management can impose terms and conditions of employment without effective challenge.

Collective bargaining introduces elements of democracy into the workplace. Workers form interest groups to advance their position and elect representatives to meet with management. Worker organizations negotiate procedures to resolve disputes over the conduct of work through a neutral decision-maker.

In its recent decision involving health-care workers and the B.C. government, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized collective bargaining as “basic to the nature of Canadian society” protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It pointed out that “a constitutional right to collective bargaining is supported by the charter value of enhancing democracy. Collective bargaining permits workers to achieve a form of workplace democracy and to ensure the rule of law in the workplace.”

One of the hallmarks of a democracy is protection of that right. Many international treaties and conventions endorsed by Canada are based on this view of collective bargaining. The former Soviet Union never permitted collective bargaining. Saddam Hussein outlawed the practice. China and Saudi Arabia, among many other nations, do not recognize these rights today.

Democracy is not a perfect institution. Elections are expensive. Voters may choose inadequate leaders. Even wise leaders make errors. Decisions can be delayed while parties with different views seek agreement. Voters may be more concerned with their own narrow interests than the well-being of the broader community.

Elected leaders can be preoccupied with their personal status and re-election rather than their constituents. In recent years, “dirty tricks” have become more common in political campaigns.

Collective bargaining has exhibited all of these flaws from time to time. Union elections produce leaders with varying qualities and visions. Managers may not recognize the contributions of employees whom they do not see. Disagreements between managers and workers can cause losses to themselves and third parties who have no voice in the terms of the dispute.

But negative experiences with collective bargaining should not obscure its basic importance to Canadian society.

Although fewer than one-third of Canadian workers participate in the system, the influence of collective bargaining makes it a significant part of the fabric of Canadian employment relations.

Non-union employers consider collective agreements when they set wages and conditions of employment. Innovations in bargaining spread to other sectors of the economy. Courts apply the principles of labour law in their enforcement of employment law.

Workers covered by collective agreements enjoy the benefits of workplace democracy recognized by the Supreme Court.

The current system of collective bargaining could be improved. Rather than treating bargaining as an economic institution, society should examine ways to promote greater democracy in 21st-century workplaces.

Mark Thompson is professor emeritus at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

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