Problems of Trade Unions in Canada

Rail Workers Take a Beating
The Socialist Standard frequently comments on government stumbling blocks placed in the way of organised workers trying to gain improvements in wages and working conditions. Regular readers of the Socialist Standard will not be surprised to learn that Canadian workers also have troubles of this kind.A trade union in Canada establishes its right to become the legal bargaining agent for a group of workers only after a government-supervised vote of the workers has been taken. It must also, of course, convince the employer of the advisability of conceding this representation. In this it is not always successful, and the law does not compel the employer to deal with the union.

When a union has become “certified” or legally recognised as a bargaining agent, and is so recognised as well by the employer, its next step is to approach the employer for a contract that will govern the wages and working conditions of its members for the duration of the contract. If the union had been previously certified and is already under contract, it must, in order to change the contract, serve notice of this desire with the employer at least thirty days before the contract expires. Then the long journey begins.

The employer and the worker, in the persons of their respective representatives, get together at a time and place agreed upon and talk things over. These talks are usually continued as long as the employer can manage. Why hurry? The law requires that a lot of red tape be unwound before a strike is legally permissible, and no matter how slowly it unwinds the employer is protected. And prolonged negotiations usually tend to wear down the determination of the workers to stand by their original demands, causing a settlement more favourable to the employer. So it is not unusual for the preliminary conversations to break down.

The next step is the appointment by the government of an arbitrator, whose ostensible function it is to get the contending parties together again and see if something can be accomplished that wasn’t accomplished before. The arbitrator can generally be depended upon to devote as much time to the task as possible. This writer knows no instance of an arbitrator helping to bring about a settlement.

Next comes the main event—a conciliation board.

The conciliation board is also appointed by the government. It is made up of three members, one named by the employer, one by the union or unions concerned, and one by the government. The government nominee is the chairman. The findings of this board are not legally binding on the disputing parties, but they often form a base from which a settlement develops.

It is the stated purpose of the conciliation board to hear the case of the parties in dispute, sift the material presented, and try to agree on what they would consider to be a “just settlement.” This type of board will hold hearings for a long time and often stays in business for several months.

Then, after being subjected to all this pompous time-wasting, if he has gotten nowhere, which often is the case, the worker may, by permission of the government, and if he has any steam left, go on strike—although, in certain instances, the government may insist on compulsory arbitration, according to a bill passed recently through Parliament.

The most representative example of what can happen to workers in Canada in dispute with employers is provided by the railway shop workers, presently trying to increase their wages and improve their working conditions. A review of their travels might be of interest.

The rail workers’ contract with the railways (Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, etc.) expired on December 31st, 1957. On the previous November 12th, in line with government regulations, they informed the railways of their desire to sign a new contract embodying improvements in wages and working conditions and asking the railways to meet them in discussions. The discussions were held, but did not last long, being described in a report of the railway unions to their members as having been “brief and abortive.”

The brevity in this instance was a departure from the usual practice. The railways rejected the union proposals and made no substitute proposals, claiming they were not in a financial position to consider an improved contract for the workers. As became apparent later, this unyielding abruptness arose from an intention to use the demands of the workers as a lever to gain increased transport rates on freight, these being regulated by a government board.

Ordinarily, the next step would have been the appointment of an arbitrator, but the unions, momentarily aware of what was going on, asked the government to waive this appointment, since the railways had made no offer and there was nothing to arbitrate. They asked instead that the conciliation board be appointed.

The government concurred in this request, perhaps knowing no good reason for declining. But it managed to delay matters in another way, by naming as chairman of the conciliation board a well known and consistent nominee of employers on other conciliation boards, which raised a clamour of protest from the unions and his ultimate replacement by another who, the unions felt, would be more impartial. A prominent union spokesman described this replacement as a victory for the railway workers. It was also the source of a time lapse of more than two months.

It must be pointed out that the unions are to a large extent to blame for the delay that followed. In spite of all their previous experiences they still, gravely and in detail, follow the devious course mapped out for them by the government, and they still accept, as something akin to gospel, the government’s mumbo-jumbo on employee-employer relations. In the present instance they hired an “economist” to help in the preparation of their submission to the conciliation board. The result was not surprising. In another of their reports to the men the union representatives declared that “during the first eight days of presentations, some 250,000 words of testimony were placed on the record.” The old time trade unionist, who often made his presentations before lunch and completed his business after lunch, could not have thought up that many words in a lifetime.

The hearings before the conciliation board lasted nearly four months. Then the board went into seclusion, presumably to sift these mountains of words into the substance of a “just settlement.” This took another six weeks, which in the charitable eyes of the rail workers indicated “a long period of sifting evidence and reaching conclusions.”

The findings of the board were released on July 21st This was followed by a period of silence during which the wisdom of its content was digested by the parties concerned. After an interval the unions declared their willingness to accept its provisions. After another interval the railways rejected its provisions. At the moment of writing, nearly twelve months after the unions served notice on the railways of their desire for a new contract, a strike vote has been taken the result of which has not yet been made known. The purpose of the strike will be to enforce acceptance by the railways of the settlement proposed by the conciliation board, which will provide the workers with less than half the amount of their original demands!

The railway workers, even if they gain a complete victory, will at the same time be getting a bad beating, having allowed themselves to be manoeuvred into the position of being willing to go on strike for trifling ends. An important thought for their future guidance is to refrain from allowing their time, energy and stamina to be frittered away by those whose chief concern must always be to protect the interests of the ruling class.

The workers need also to learn that the size and quality of the material brought before a conciliation board is not important to the final outcome., No matter how impressive or convincing this material may be, the board, with promptings from the government, is guided by considerations designed to leave the worker not far from subsistence level. Evidence of this may frequently be found in board reports, an example being the following from the report of the railway conciliation board:

  The Chairman throughout was concerned about the conditions of the economy as a whole and the need for moderation in wage demands.  . . .

What caused the chairman to become concerned about these things was certainly not contained in the material submitted for his consideration!

An even more blatant disregard for the alleged functions of a conciliation board is contained in the report of the board conciliating the recent dispute between the Steel Company of Canada and its employees at Hamilton, from which the following is taken:—

   “It is our view that in coming to a decision on what should be done about wage and other economic demands, made by the Union at this time, our decision must be governed to a very considerable degree on our interpretation, of what is in the national interest and what effect should be given to it.
“The interpretation of the Government itself as to what is presently in the national interest as far as wages and prices are concerned, is to be found in the speeches and statements of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance and need not be quoted here at length. In general, both Employers and Unions have been aborted to ‘hold the line’.” . . .


This conciliation board awarded nothing at all, and although its deliberations were given the added weight, prestige and genius of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance, it is with some satisfaction that we are able to report that its findings were ignored and the steel workers went on strike, gaining an increase in wages of some 26 cents an hour.
Railway and other workers are at present showing too great a tendency to place their problems of wages and working conditions at the discretion of government boards. That this is an unsafe thing to do is shown by the quotations above. The lesson provided by the steel workers is quite plain. The strike is still their most effective argument.


Jim Milne