Movers & Shakers

Q&A with Alex Colvin — professor of labour relations and conflict resolution

We sat down with Alex Colvin, professor of labour relations and conflict resolution at Cornell University’s ILR School in Ithaca, N.Y., to talk about the possibility of globalizing the labour movement. He sheds light on non-union collective agreements and how Canada became a trailblazer of labour practices.

How has labour evolved recently?
If you go back 30 years to 1980, and you look at how labour relations worked in the English-speaking countries, it was actually pretty different when you went country to country. If you went to Britain or Ireland, they had not a lot of legal regulation, but a lot of direct industrial conflict, intense strikes. Canada and the U.S. had a very similar styled system with our kind of more legally-regulated collective bargaining, basic minimum employment laws relatively hands-off from the government. And then you have Australia and New Zealand, with systems that were much more government-directed and legalistic. Over the course of the next few decades, there was a change in the system and you see the old systems breaking down.

How has Canada fared in all of this?
Thirty years ago, Canada looked quite different than a lot of countries in terms of how our labour relations work. If you go to these other countries today, they look a lot more like Canadian labour relations. When you look at those six countries, Canada’s labour relations have changed really less than any of the other countries, we’ve stayed the most stable, while the other countries have been gradually becoming more like Canada.

Are there any trends common to the international bargaining table?
Another issue that cuts across a number of these countries is the tension between individual rights and collective bargaining. Other countries have interesting ways of addressing this. An interesting example is the U.K., which has a law providing individual rights to negotiate flexible work arrangements. All it provided was a right to negotiate — it doesn’t have very strong enforcement in terms of particular entitlements. But the research is suggesting it’s been remarkably effective in encouraging flexible arrangements between employers and employees. A high percentage of employees have used this and have been able to negotiate flexible schedules. It’s an alternative approach, between individual and collective rights.

Where do we go from here?
One area where Canada hasn’t done as much is the non-union sector. We’ve maintained a pretty strong division between the organized and non-organized sector, we haven’t seen as much experimentation in the non-union sector. In Australia, there’s a procedure for collective agreements to be negotiated at the workplace level in the absence of unions — you don’t have to be in a union to negotiate a collective agreement for the individual workplace, you just have to have the agreement of the individual employee. Individual workers have a right to bargain. By contrast, in Canada, we’ve stayed with an American-style exclusive representation system, where it’s all or nothing.

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