Mr. Premier, That's No Way To Build Partnership
March 1, 1992 -
On this, the central issue of power in the workplace, the interests of employees and employers are unalterably opposed. Co-operation is impossible. (Thomas Walkom, The Toronto Star, February 24, 1992, p. A13)
Premier Bob Rae keeps saying that the contemplated changes to the Labour Relations Act will improve the business climate in Ontario. He and his cabinet colleagues claim that the labour law reforms will help to build cooperation and partnership between labour and management.
But Ontario employers are not convinced. Many of them are angry and have combined to fight the government's contemplated labour law changes. They insist that all the government's suggested revisions are tilted against business and are intended to increase the power of unions. A number of Ontario business organizations have predicted that if the government goes ahead with the changes, billions of dollars of investment and hundreds of thousands of jobs will be forfeited.
The Rae government finds itself between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, business vehemently opposes the planned labour reforms. On the other hand, its most vocal supporters in the trade union movement and other New Democratic Party allies warn the government not to capitulate to the demand of callous and greedy capitalists.
What are we to make of this controversy? Are the employers overreacting? Or, is it true that the Ontario government is catering to a powerful labour lobby with an anti-business mindset?
An NDP/Labour Agenda
It makes sense to look at the present controversy in light of the long-term alliance between the New Democratic Party and the Canadian Labour Congress and its most powerful affiliated unions. One of the first actions undertaken by the newly elected Ontario government was the appointment of a joint labour-management committee instructed to recommend how the Labour Relations Act should be overhauled. Not surprisingly, the three labour representatives drafted a separate report with recommendations aimed at vastly expanding union power. Their 95-page report included the following more contentious recommendations:
Even The Toronto Star (often supportive of the NDP government), in an editorial on April 30, 1992, described this last proposal as "a sure-fire way of killing jobs."
Ontario business people interpreted these recommendations as an anti-business scheme designed to tilt the balance of power in favour of unions. They were not persuaded by the labour representatives' claim that the intention of their proposals was "to move towards an equitable and efficient partnership between business and the labour movement."
Again, not surprisingly, the employers' representatives issued a very different report. In fact, they recommended that none of the labour representatives' proposed changes be adopted but that the status quo be maintained, especially in view of the difficult economic times. Obviously, it would be a herculean task to bridge the chasm between the two sides.
A "leaked" cabinet document did nothing to soften the employers' opposition to what they perceived to be the imposition of a pro-union, anti-business set of labour law reforms. What especially angered them was the statement, "There will be special effort made to neutralize opposition from the business community." It seems the government was more interested in "managing" a media campaign than taking the employers' objections seriously. The document's condescending tone was clearly inspired by the idea that business cannot be trusted and that Big Brother knows best.
The War of Words Heats Up
Conrad Black, a prominent and forceful spokesman of the business community, described the government's plans as a form of confiscation. In a strongly worded column in The Financial Post (September 2, 1991), Black denounced the contemplated changes as a complete capitulation to power-hungry unions. He wrote that the government's plans amounted to an "annihilation of capital by labor." He warned that the imbalance between American and Canadian economic performance would be greatly accentuated and that the de-industrialization of Ontario would be inevitable. Black called on all business people to stand up to the bullying tactics of unions or else face the prospect of inevitable economic decline.
Diane Francis, in her November 4, 1991, Maclean's column, was no less outspoken about the topic of the relationship between the New Democratic Party and Canada's mainline unions.
The problem with the NDP's labor-union sugar daddies and mommies is that they are distinctly anti-business and anti-enterprise, due to some imagined and inappropriate class warfare. They represent the politics of envy and only one side of the economic equation. In addition, their ruthless disregard for capitalists and wealth creation will inevitably lower living standards by driving out capital or by frightening it off.
In November, 1991, the Ontario Government submitted its official discussion paper in which it identified a number of preferred options for reform and invited all individuals and groups to participate in the debate about labour law reform. Consequently, the Ministry of Labour sponsored numerous hearings across the province, providing a forum for the public to air their views.
While the discussion paper omitted or toned down many of the radical changes demanded in the labour representatives' original report, business people insisted that the drift was still clearly to enhance the power of unions at the expense of the rights of employers and employees. They suggested that all reforms be suspended for the time being, that more time be given to the consultation process, and that serious attention be paid to the rights and opinions of Ontario employers.
An extensive submission by the More Jobs Coalition (a group of 85 employers with more than 100,000 unionized and nonunionized employees across the province) stated that "consensus and partnership cannot be legislated from above by a partisan government but must be achieved voluntarily between business and labour with government acting as a facilitator." It advised the Ontario government that its process of proposed labour law reforms was inappropriate. "By 'tinkering with the traditional instruments of labour law' the government's 'reform' agenda will only serve to exacerbate an already hostile labour-management climate. If Ontario is to meet the challenges of the 1990s, a more thoughtful and searching analysis of ways to improve the collective bargaining system must be undertaken." (More Jobs Coalition, Facing Reality, Sharing Responsibility, February, 1992, pp. 9,11)
Thus the battle lines are drawn and there is little likelihood of agreement. This bodes ill for the prospect of establishing a truly cooperative relationship (partnership) between labour and management in this province.
What are we to make of this standoff? Is it an escalation of the conflict between labour and management, masterminded by a socialist government? In this context, is it true that socialism is by definition anti-business? Will the reforms indeed bring about cooperation in the workplace? Or are they merely big labour's reward for years of faithful service to the NDP?
An Alternative Needed
It is easy to understand the employers' frustration with the one-sided direction of the government's proposed reforms. But their wholesale rejection of all proposals is reactionary. Some proposals, such as streamlining the certification process and recognizing the right of additional categories of workers to join unions, should be acceptable to both sides. If instead of reacting with a doomsday scenario, the business community had used the occasion to articulate a vision of true partnership in the workplace, it could have set the stage for a more positive public debate. Then the discussion could have moved away from the current deadlock in which the old question of the balance of power is still central. In a real sense this is a misdirected question.
Management must assume its share of the blame for adversarial labour relations. Employers need to acknowledge that unhappiness and anger in the workplace are not only due to socialist ideologues and malcontents in union ranks. All too often management techniques have been used to control and dominate workers for the sake of a single-minded preoccupation with efficiency and profit.
Taylorism (scientific management) has been very influential in North American management theory and practice. The essence of Taylorism (although it has undergone some modification since its heyday at the turn of this century) is that it separates "managing" from "doing." Many workers are reduced to factors of production. They are told to do jobs that provide little room to take initiative, bear responsibility, and experience a sense of pride of workmanship. No wonder that such jobs breed indifference and hostility in the workplace. Fortunately, some employers are now beginning to realize that a rigid, hierarchical system of management is a fertile breeding ground for adversarial trade unionism, preoccupied with power and job control. (See, for example, Tom Rankin, New Forms of Work Organization: The Challenge for North American Unions, University of Toronto Press, 1990.)
The debate needs to be refocused on the nature of work itself and on new ways in which employees can share in the rewards and responsibilities of the workplace. The remarkable thing is that management can point to numerous examples of cooperative labour relations. In the instances where changes have been not merely cosmetic but involved a fundamental rearranging of responsibility, the results have been extremely rewarding in terms of greatly improved morale, employee satisfaction, and overall company performance. (One purpose of the WRF Comment is to demonstrate that such changes are necessary and possible.)
A positive (cooperative) redirection of labour-relations will not happen if the NDP-CLC agenda for labour reforms in Ontario becomes reality. It will simply be more of the same old thingwith a vengeance. But for genuine reform to take place, management must do more than blast unionists as if all are troublemakers. It must map out and put into practice a new way of managing and organizing the workplace that will overcome the separation between giving and following orders, between "managing" and "doing."