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Labour chicken comes home to roost in Brandon

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The CHICKENS are coming home to roost. The Manitoba labour movement has expressed outrage because Labour Minister Jennifer Howard has used statutory authority to order that the union representing professors on strike at Brandon University conduct a vote to accept or reject the university's last settlement offer. This is clearly an interference with the internal affairs of a union. An employer is prohibited from making such a demand under the Labour Act. It is also a blatant interference with the principle of free collective bargaining.

This should come as no surprise to Manitoba labour. Free collective bargaining does not exist in Manitoba. What is ironic is that free collective bargaining was created by New Democratic Party governments at the instigation of the Manitoba labour movement.

Some history. It was the tradition of the free-enterprise Liberal and Conservative governments to gradually erode the free collective bargaining rights of employees by enacting labour statutes that purported to preserve the rights of employees to withdraw their services but which effectively compromise these rights by mandating limitations such as conciliation and other requirements.

The position of the NDP in opposition was to remove the impediments to free collective bargaining by amendments to the labour legislation and by legislation preventing interference by the courts.

When the NDP came to power in 1969, it indeed made good on its position and drastically altered the Labour Act so as to bring it much more closely to the realization of the principle of free collective bargaining.

But free collective bargaining involves responsibilities. Under conditions of free collective bargaining, a union can lose a strike and employees can lose their jobs. Under free collective bargaining, an employer can see its business destroyed.

These terrible consequences are the effective inducements to reasonable bargaining on behalf of employers and employees.

If these consequences are removed and neither side can be hurt by a strike or lockout, responsible collective bargaining is effectively removed in difficult cases.

After relatively free collective bargaining had been restored by the Schreyer government, some unions in Manitoba found it not to their liking.

They did not want a "hands-off" policy in labour relations. They believed that the NDP, of which they were a constituent part, should not be neutral but should design legislation that would come to their aid when they were in dispute with their employer.

So began a series of demands and moves by the labour movement to eliminate the concept of free collective bargaining.

The involvement of the labour minister in this dispute is one of the features of the legislation that came about as a result of the impairment of the principle of free collective bargaining. If the act did not contain these provisions, the union and the employer bargaining positions would be drastically changed. Each side now bargains on the premise that if no agreement is reached, the act can be used to impose terms and conditions of employment which are not satisfactory to either side.

If the parties knew that this would not happen and that in the absence of agreement there would be a serious adverse consequences to one or the other, or both sides, discussions at the bargaining table would be totally different.

Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer

and former NDP cabinet minister.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2011 A15

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