Looking back at 2014

We review some of the top labour stories that made headlines this year

This past year was a significant one for the labour movement in Canada.

Unifor — which became the country’s biggest private sector union following the marriage of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers — celebrated its first anniversary. An impasse at the bargaining table jeopardized the kickoff of the football season. A push for certification at threeToyota plants hit some speed bumps.

And with federal contracts expiring, whispers of tough negotiations and strikes were plentiful across the public sector.

In the pages to follow, we look at stories that had an impact in 2014, and hear from top players in the labour game.

Plethora of pensions

After Ottawa balked on expanding the national pension plan, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne (below) forged ahead alone. Her brainchild, the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, will be mandatory for workers without a company retirement plan. Should the legislation pass, employers and employees will each contribute 1.9 per cent of their salary — much to the dismay of business groups.

From the experts:
Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, comments on the biggest wins and losses for labour in 2014.

Biggest win:
Tim Hudak’s defeat in Ontario

"Soon-to-be ex-leader of the Ontario Conservatives, Tim Hudak (right), made a grave mistake when he threatened so-called right-to-work legislation. Hudak wasn’t just out to get labour — his policies would have set Ontario back decades. The promise to lay off 100,000 public sector employees would have had a devastating impact on the local economy in both rural and urban communities.Labour mobilized and played a key role in Hudak’s defeat in a battle that was about more than just our rights."

Biggest challenge:

Retirement security

"At a time when more Canadians are fearful about their future — wondering how they’ll ever be able to afford to retire — the federal government seems intent on making the situation worse for more people by converting defined benefit pension plans into less secure target benefit plans. This means asking workers to pay more for reduced service and less secure benefits. It would also allow once-secure pension benefits, earned for past service, to be reduced if a plan suffers a shortfall. The result? Hurting people when their needs are greatest."

Strange bedfellows
Health-care workers in Nova Scotia are embroiled in a battle for fair representation. The government introduced the Health Authorities Act, which merges nine district health employers into one and reduces the number of bargaining units from 50 to four — all to be represented by a single union. Currently, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Unifor, the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union and the Nova Scotia Government & General Employees Union are vying for the spot — to be decided by an arbitrator later this month.

Some assembly may be required
Seventeen months after it began, a labour dispute at furniture giant Ikea in Richmond, B.C., came to an end when arbitrator Vince Ready (who also put an end to the province’s teachers’ strike) managed to negotiate a fair deal between the company and Teamsters Union. As part of the 10-year collective agreement, employees will receive automatic annual wage increases and improvements to benefits. Workers who crossed the picket line during the strike will also be allowed to keep their jobs.

School’s out
Summer was extended for students in British Columbia this year as teachers and the province hit an impasse at the bargaining table. That led to a bitter and arduous strike, which came to an end in late September when the government and 41,000 teachers (by way of a mediator) signed the longest collective agreement in the province’s history — six years.

We have liftoff
Flight attendants at WestJet inked a one-of-a-kind collective agreement in order to stave off unionization efforts at the airline. Negotiated between the Calgary-based airline and the non-certified flight attendants' association, the five-year deal is the most comprehensive to date and includes provisions pertaining to wages, working conditions and dispute resolution.The deal was a blow to the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which for months has attempted to have WestJet staff sign membership cards and certify — but thus far has only taxied down the runway.

Heenan Blaikie shutters
When the now-defunct law firm Heenan Blaikie collapsed in February, it sent shock waves throughout international labour, employment and legal circles. Now, eight months after the firm shuttered its doors, ex-staffers are seeking hundreds of thousands in severance pay and punitive damages.

Canadian Labour Reporter sat down with Buzz Hargrove, former president of the Canadian Auto Workers union and visiting professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, to hear about his take on how the union-management relationship comes into play at the bargaining table.

From the experts:

Howard Levitt, partner at Levitt & Grosman, a labour law firm headquartered in Toronto, names three employment issues that made an impact this year:

1. Jian Ghomeshi — he made sexual harassment, other employment law issues and the cross-section between civil and criminal remedies part of the national debate.

2. The duty of good faith in all legal negotiations, as just enunciated by the Supreme Court of Canada. It will ultimately impact on all aspects of employment law as well as collective bargaining.

3. The recognition, both in labour and employment law, that private, non-work-related conduct can be cause for dismissal.

Unifor hits roadblock at Toyota
Unifor pushed to certify at three Toyota plants in Ontario — which would make them the first of their kind to be unionized in North America — but kept hitting speed bumps. The union withdrew its application at the provincial labour board and has delayed the certification vote. However, the union says it remains hopeful and just needs more time to collect signed union cards.

Union-busting bill resurfaces
The federal government received much flack after reviving Bill C-377, which would force unions to publicly disclose spending details. The legislation, which was sent back to the House of Commons following major amendments from the Senate, has been called unconstitutional and undemocratic by its critics. As it currently stands, any spending of at least $5,000 and any salary more than $100,000 would have to be revealed. The Senate’s amendments would raise the threshold for spending disclosure to $150,000 and $444,000 for salaries. Bill C-377 may be a private member’s bill but it has been touted by the prime minister’s office.

From the

Toronto-based lawyer
Allan Rouben specializes
in employment law and
civil litigation cases.
Below, he lists the most
important cases in 2014:

"Hryniak v. Mauldin
(Supreme Court of Canada)
for the impact the case has on the civil justice system
and, in particular, that employment law matters are
now more amenable to summary adjudication.

"Boucher v. Walmart (in Ontario) for the large jury award. While the Court of Appeal reduced
the punitive damages, the case is a good reminder
of the power of juries to set community standards.

"Jian Ghomeshi (at CBC), to the extent his case focused public attention on the subject of how a person’s private life can affect their employment, how an employer evaluates termination for cause, and how union members are precluded from accessing the courts in employment-related matters."

Too-raw data
The dog days of summer are often cited as excuses for slower productivity and mistakes on the job. But when you’re the top statistical agency in the country, there is little room for reprieve. Statistics Canada found this out all too well in July, after its initial Labour Force Survey and unemployment rates reported the economy added a scant 200 jobs. In reality, the number was closer to 42,000. The flub was chalked up to "human error" and the government body launched an investigation, which churned out five recommendations.

Fumble off the football field
The kickoff of the Canadian football season was put in jeopardy in June after talks between the Canadian Football League (CFL) and players’ association broke down just two days before spring training camps opened. Because the CFL has bloomed in recent years — with two new stadiums, a new franchise in Ottawa and a broadcasting contract with TSN — the union said players should be getting a chunk of that revenue. The impasse signals a shift for professional sports collective bargaining, according to Layth Gafoor, managing partner at Lucentem Sports & Entertainment Law in Toronto. CFL commissioner Mark Cohon, who will step down in the spring of 2015, eventually reached a deal with players just in time for the season to start.

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