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Labor reform hearings merely window-dressing: chamber official.

Northern Ontario business leaders call the recent series of hearings on proposals to reform the provincial Labour Relations Act a "sham."

"I hate to say it, but it looks like this is a done deal," says Rick Gutcher, the vice-president of the Timmins Chamber of Commerce. "All these hearings are nothing but window-dressing."

Gutcher and other chamber representatives claim the government's panel would rather debate than listen to their concerns.

"They may be listening, but I don't think they're going to do anything with what we say," Gutcher charges.

"It (the legislation) is already written," adds Ken Lajambe, the president of the Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce.

Chambers of Commerce in Timmins, Thunder Bay, Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie made submissions to the provincial panel last month. Each voiced strong opposition to the government's discussion paper.

"These laws are going to tip the balance of power in the unions' favor," says Jeanne Warwick, the president of the Sudbury and District Chamber of Commerce.

However, Pat Phillips, a spokesman for Labour Minister Bob MacKenzie, claims that much of the opposition is based on "information that's not even in the discussion paper."


According to the discussion paper, the government's intent is to reform the Labour Relations Act to extend the right to organize to more workers, to promote "harmonious labor relations" and to provide effective ways of settling disagreements.

The government proposes to extend the right to organize to domestics, security guards, professionals, front-line supervisors and agricultural employees who work in factory-style settings and in landscape gardening.

It recommends limiting the use of anti-union petitions after certification application has been filed and providing that a union can be certified where it has the support of an absolute majority of employees.

The discussion paper also includes recommendations to increase protection for employees who are negotiating their first contract, to improve access to first-contract arbitration and to grant new powers to the Ontario Labour Relations Board and to arbitrators in disputes.

To "discourage lengthy and confrontational labor disputes," the government proposes to prohibit the hiring of replacement workers during a strike and to allow employees to picket in public places such as shopping centres.

Greg Miller, president of the Northeastern Ontario Chambers of Commerce, points out that the proposals could shut a business down because unionized managers would honor a picket line and the company's owners would be prohibited from hiring replacement workers.

"It's hard to tell if that would happen," admits Phillips. "All these people (businessmen) say the changes will create more strikes. The fact is most people don't want strikes."


According to the Ministry of Labour, the proposals included in its discussion paper are intended to foster co-operation between workers and management.

"Collective bargaining, the centrepiece of the Labour Relations Act, provides the most effective way of promoting employee participation in the workplace - a crucial ingredient in adapting to fundamental economic change," states a summary of the government's discussion paper.

"The act should encourage employees and employers to work together on mutual challenges instead of fostering a climate of antagonism and confrontation."

Chamber officials, however, do not believe the proposals will achieve the desired result.

"You cannot legislate harmony in the workplace," comments Thunder Bay lawyer John Erickson, a spokesman for the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce. "There are people involved, and mutual trust and co-operation are things that have to be worked at, not legislated."

Miller states that it is fine for the government to call for the creation of partnerships between business and labor, "but right now leadership is what we need, and from good leadership comes partnerships."

"It's great to suggest forming partnerships. We're all for them," adds Lajambe, "but the partners need to be consulted. I don't think we are part of the process."

Gautcher, meanwhile, notes that the hearings have driven labor and business further apart.

"It's been evident from all the submissions I've seen or heard from businesses in Thunder Bay and Timmins that they are driving a wedge between labor and management," he says. "They are doing the exact opposite of what the government wants to do."


Lajambe and Erickson believe that the government's proposals are little more than the first step in a union membership drive.

"There has been an erosion of union membership during the past few years. The service sector is a ripe market for the unions," says Erickson. "The whole game here is union growth."

"It has all the trappings of a pay-back," he adds, referring to organized labor's traditional support of the New Democratic Party.

According to Phillips, it was the growth of the service sector which brought about the government's proposed reforms of the Labour Relations Act.

"When the act was first written, the economy was dominated by manufacturing industries," she explains. "Now the service sector is the largest segment of the economy."

However, she contends that the changes will not bring about a massive union membership drive.

"There has been a lot of over-reaction to the discussion paper," she says. "If this goes through people won't even notice it."

The chamber officials disagree, particularly because the legislation is being introduced during a severe economic downturn.

"A lot of businesses will close their doors if this goes through," Warwick claims. "They (the government) are just adding one more thing that small businesses have to cope with. There is no way small businesses will be able to handle it."


"This is not the time," adds Erickson.

In Timmins a chamber of commerce' survey of 50 union and non-union businesses indicated that 20 per cent of the total would consider leaving the province if the government's proposals are passed.

Gautcher says one mining firm which responded to the survey indicated that it would divert the $75 million it has earmarked for local expansion and exploration work to the U.S..

The provincial panel is scheduled to wrap up its business by the end of this month, and legislation is expected to be introduced this spring in the provincial legislature. A final reading of the legislation could occur before the legislature takes its Christmas recess.
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Title Annotation:proposals to reform the Labour Relations Act; Timmins Chamber of Commerce VP Rick Gutcher
Author:Krejlgaard, Chris
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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