Two sides of the same coin

Number of lockouts stays the same even if media attention would indicate otherwise

There might not be much to it, but there’s an adage out there (well, more among journalism circles than anywhere else) that says one’s a curiosity, two’s a coincidence, but three makes a trend.

Considering the high-profile lockouts played out in the Canadian industrial relations scene last year, it’s certainly worth asking whether there’s a trend afoot. There was the National Hockey League lockout lasting 301 days and wiping out an entire hockey season, then the eight-week lockout of 5,500 radio and television workers at the CBC in the summer. Perhaps most acrimonious was the four-month showdown between Telus and the Telecommunications Workers Union, which erupted when Telus imposed a collective agreement as part of its lockout measures. To this day, the company calls it a strike and the union calls it a lockout.

So is there a trend? Based on his impression, Pradeep Kumar, professor at Queen’s University’s Industrial Relations Centre in Kingston, Ont., said he thinks so.

“I think it’s a significant trend. Take Telus and CBC, which in both cases were lockouts. That wouldn’t have happened 10 or 15 years ago. A number of studies have confirmed that management is very aggressive now and taking initiative in forcing a resolution,” said Kumar.

Senior research associate Christopher Hallamore at the Conference Board of Canada shares that impression. Noting that he does not have data distinguishing lockouts from strikes, Hallamore added that “we’ve certainly seen the rise in the public sphere of the use of lockouts.”

Also noting that the use of lockouts would have been relatively uncommon in the past, Hallamore said global competition is forcing employers’ hands. “Our sense is employers are increasingly looking at powerful forces at the bargaining table — forces that challenge their success and continued existence as an organization. Where we see this going is their demands are so integral to the success of the organization that the use of the lockout tool is something that employers are hesitating less to use in order to get the things they need.”

Neither Hallamore nor Kumar had seen statistics separating strikes from lockouts when making these comments, as both are typically aggregated under the category of work stoppage. But when separated, the numbers don’t seem to support the trend hypothesis. According to statistics provided by the Workplace Information Directorate at Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (see sidebar on page 9), lockouts have held steady at 0.01 or 0.02 per cent of overall working time.

Frank Reid, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre of Industrial Relations and Human Resources, said the only trend he sees in the stats is a long-term decline of work stoppages in general, in line with the pattern in all developed countries. And within that general decline, the number of strikes tends to fluctuate in accordance with overall economic health: more strikes in booms, fewer in busts. Last year, for example, days lost due to strikes represented 0.10 per cent of estimated working time, up from 2003 when they were at 0.03 per cent or in the deficit-burdened years of 1996 and 1997, when the figure was 0.01 per cent.

There’s no sign in these numbers of any upward or downward movement in the frequency of lockouts. Even if there was, Reid noted, that wouldn’t indicate either a rise or fall in the bargaining power of each side. For evidence of bargaining power, he added, one would have to look at the outcome of bargaining: the collective agreement.

As for work stoppages, a company with considerable leverage could come up with a ridiculously low offer and compel the union to go on strike, for example. Or an aggressive union might engage in various tactics to disrupt business, forcing management to respond by calling a lockout.

Hence, the distinction between strikes and lockouts is of little help in determining where power resides in a given dispute. What strikes and lockouts can be said to indicate, said Reid, is “the degree of divergence of expectations” of what the outcome of the work stoppage may be.

That said, however, Reid acknowledged that in terms of public perception, the two words carry distinct meanings. Picketers in a lockout invariably feel the stoppage is something that the company has done to them, whereas a strike is something they choose.

Mark Thompson, labour relations specialist and professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, said though the numbers don’t seem to indicate a significant shift, he sees a “more aggressive posture by employers at the bargaining table” that the numbers don’t capture.

Employers in the past wouldn’t have any reason to lock employees out; they would carry on if they couldn’t meet union demands and wait for the union to go on strike. In recent years, however, unions have been more reluctant to strike, and changes in the business model that employers in certain sectors face mean even the status quo is not acceptable.

Locking employees out can exact a high price for employers, he said. “It would be hard to reconstruct the employment relationship once it’s over. There would be a sense of betrayal among workers. Employers always say employees are their biggest asset, but when they force them out of work, that’s a hard argument to sustain.”

Strike versus lockout
The bitter battle at Telus

At the height of the Telus dispute, it certainly mattered whether the four-month stoppage was called a lockout or a strike. Picketing began last July after the company imposed lockout measures, including a new contract. About 8,200 Telecommunications Workers Union members, representing six in 10 of the union members, walked out the day before the contract was to take effect, giving cause for the company to call it a strike. Picketers, however, maintained they were locked out.

That debate over terminology is now “neither here nor there,” said TWU president Bruce Bell. The picketing was a culmination of five years of impasse over the first contract to be negotiated following a merger between Telus Corporation and BC Telecom and, one way or another, things were coming to a head.

When the strike ended in the fall, by all accounts, the outcome considerably favoured the company. It got contracting out provisions in the collective agreement to give it the flexibility it sought. And though the strike cost it $65 million in the third quarter, the company chalked up a third-quarter profit of $190.1 million, up from $156.6 million in the same period the year before. Operating revenues were $2.06 billion, up from $1.95 billion.

From the perspective of Telus management, however, how things played out wasn’t about whether the employer had the upper hand.

“We were in a situation of five years trying to work through a lot of issues. It was pretty clear that things had changed dramatically in the industry, and we needed to bring the union along with us,” said vice-president of corporate affairs Drew McArthur. “The lockout we used were measures to move the process along.”

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