The aftermath of replacement workers can linger long after the strike is over

Replacement workers put pressure on the union…but at what cost?

On Sept. 18, 1992, a striking miner, frustrated by the use of scab labour, took matters into his own hands and blew up the Royal Oak Mine in Yellowknife, killing nine miners. This was Canada’s deadliest confrontation in industrial relations’ most contentious issue: whether or not to use replacement workers during a labour disruption.

The violence and strife associated with the use of replacement workers, as well as the potential for a poorly trained workforce, led to the introduction of anti-scab laws in Quebec, British Columbia and Ontario. The laws in B.C. and Quebec still stand, however the Ontario law was repealed a few years after it was introduced.

Employers in other provinces, and those that fall under federal jurisdiction, are free to use replacement workers, which some experts say is good for labour relations.

“My work found that allowing the use of replacement workers has led to shortened strikes,” said Morley Gunderson, an industrial relations professor at the University of Toronto.

His study, entitled The Effect of Collective Bargaining Legislation on Strikes and Wages, was published in 1994 and examined private-sector contract negotiations involving 500 or more workers from 1967 to March 1993. Gunderson compared Canadian jurisdictions without replacement-worker bans with Quebec, where the use of replacement workers has been banned since 1977. He found that prohibiting the use of replacement workers during strikes is associated with significantly higher wages and more frequent and longer strikes when compared to jurisdictions where no such anti-scab laws exist.

Another Canadian study produced similar findings. The 2005 study, The Effect of Replacement Workers on Public Sector Collective Bargaining Outcomes and Social Welfare: The Case of School Teachers by Claudia Landeo and Maxim Nikitin of the University of Alberta, found that the availability of replacement teachers increased the bargaining power of the school board.

This resulted in a reduction in the likelihood of strikes and in lower wages for teachers.

However, the use of replacement workers can have negative effects for employers as well as workers. “You have to be cautious if you’re going to go down that road,” warned Gunderson.

In August 2000, Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford recalled 14.4 million tires because the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration in the United States had linked the tires to 271 fatalities and more than 800 injuries.

Princeton University’s Alan Krueger and his colleagues found a higher failure rate for tires produced in Decatur, Ill., during the plant’s two-year-long labour dispute than before or after the dispute. The Decatur tires also had a higher failure rate when compared to tires produced at the other two plants. The production of defective tires was especially high when large numbers of replacement workers and permanent workers worked side-by-side in late 1995 and early 1996.

Before Krueger’s 2002 study, entitled Strikes, Scabs and Tread Separations: Labour Strife and the Production of Defective Bridgestone/Firestone Tires, some people theorized that the use of poorly trained and under-supervised replacement workers led to the production of the defective tires. However, Krueger’s findings show that the cause was more complicated. More likely, it was the strained work environment created when replacement workers and unionized employees worked together that led to the higher number of defective tires.

The possible harm that replacement workers can cause to the employer-employee relationship and the work environment is of utmost concern, said the associate dean of Queen’s University’s school of business in Kingston, Ont.

“The employer has to calculate very carefully if bringing in replacement workers is going to exacerbate the bitterness of the dispute and make a very careful determination,” said Rick Jackson. “After a strike it takes a while to put the relationship back together. There’s a lot of bitterness left over. The employer takes some chance of exacerbating that when they bring in replacement workers…at a substantial cost to the management-labour relationship over the long term.”

B.C. management-side labour lawyer Colin Gibson said employers are losing out because of the province’s ban on replacement workers.

“It may force the employer to agree to terms and conditions that aren’t economically viable and that can have damaging long-term effects,” he said. “Employer groups have argued strenuously that it creates a non-level playing field, because during a strike, striking employees can go out and get jobs elsewhere until the strike is over, but the employer can’t continue to operate.”

One of Gibson’s clients has a large non-union manufacturing plant but the 12 maintenance employees are unionized, ticketed journeymen so if they were to strike, the other employees couldn’t to do their work.

“That means this small group can shut down the operation and put over 200 people out of work if they go on strike,” he said.

Gibson added that in B.C. most workers respect the picket lines, which makes it hard for an employer to keep operating during a labour disruption. If a firm under federal regulation hires replacement workers, this often results in violence on the picket line.

“Even before the replacement worker law came into effect in B.C., in the majority of strikes and lockouts, employers didn’t use replacement workers,” said Gibson. “But most employers would like the right to use replacement workers even if they choose not to exercise it.”

Deciding whether or not to use replacement workers is complicated by labour strength provincially. The recent Telus labour dispute illustrates these differences.

Telus employees in Alberta and B.C. have been on strike for two months and the company has hired replacement workers. In Alberta, 40 to 56 per cent of unionized workers have crossed the picket lines, while in BC that figure is zero. There has also been more violence on the B.C. picket lines than in Alberta.

Pradeep Kumar, professor of industrial relations at Queen’s University, said that the use of replacement workers adversely affects the morale of striking workers, which creates a problem for the workplace. He added that the use of replacement workers also violates the basic premise of free collective bargaining.

“If a union goes on strike and the employer tries to keep operating with the help of replacement workers, it really weakens the union’s position,” said Kumar. “If the company can operate without any problem, what’s the point of a work stoppage? It has no meaning, it has no force.”

When considering replacement workers

AFI, a company that helps employers deal with labour disputes and work stoppages, has a 200-point plan for employers when facing a labour disruption. AFI president Darrel Parsons says employers must remember that the unionized workers will one day return to work. How employers handle labour relations before, during and after the work stoppage will determine the future of the employer-employee relationship.

Here are some points to consider to make the use of replacement workers the least disruptive possible:

•Will your customers accept products made by replacement workers?

•Is the skill set needed in replacement workers available in the labour market?

•Are the skilled workers available locally or outside the region?

•Will the replacement workers need housing or transportation?

•How much time will it take to recruit and train the replacement workers?

•Do you have the capability to train the needed number of replacement workers?

•Remember that the unionized employees are your friends, your neighbours and your colleagues.

•Management shouldn’t go near the picket line because they can’t negotiate there and their presence will inflame tempers.

•Management and non-bargaining unit employees should be aware of the pickets’ rights, management’s rights and the public’s rights during the dispute.

•When crossing picket lines, non-bargaining unit employees, managers and replacement workers should keep all personal comments to themselves.

•Security personnel should know what is allowed and what isn’t allowed on the picket line and should serve to calm matters, not make them worse.

•Develop a clear return-to-work plan for unionized employees and have managers or HR talk with employees on their first day back. A lot of planning needs to go into preparing for the return-to-work transition and should start even before the work stoppage.

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