Employers in Newfoundland and Labrador are relieved in the wake of the Voisey’s Bay Industrial Inquiry.
The inquiry commission recently made public its probe into the 17-month old strike at Vale’s nickel operation in Labrador. The report was critical of both Brazilian mining giant Vale and the United Steelworkers for the lengthy labour dispute, and recommended an agreement aimed at ending it.
The commission stopped short, however, of making over-arching statements about the state of labour relations in the province, nor did it make recommendations to avoid future disputes — for now. That’s exactly the outcome Richard Alexander, executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Employer’s Council, was hoping for.
“The purpose of the inquiry was to look at a local issue and provide solutions,” he said. “There was the potential to make widespread legislative recommendations and to put the pressure on the government to make them.”
At the outset of the inquiry, the USW and other trade unions said they hoped the inquiry would recommend the province adopt anti-replacement worker legislation. Vale has been operating throughout the strike with replacement workers, which the inquiry noted has reduced the company’s “need” to reach a new collective agreement.
Alexander said the pressure for a recommendation on the use of replacement workers has “caused a lot of concern” among employers.
“To see that it could be elevated to that point was concerning,” he said. “That’s the problem with the public nature of this inquiry. It’s being used as a public tool to change legislation that would change every unionized work environment in the province — even if they’re not affected by the same issues.”
Trade unions had also hoped the industrial inquiry would opt for binding arbitration. It didn’t and instead recommended a middle-of-the road contract that gave and took away from both parties.
Alexander said binding arbitration would have caused long term harm to labour relations in the province because the issues would still exist the next time the contract came up.
“Legislation in Newfoundland and Labrador has matured and evolved to a point where we’re forced to come to the table and deal with these issues on our own,” he said. “We’re learning how to negotiate without everyone turning to a strike. But strikes are a normal part of labour relations and, as unpleasant as it is, it serves a purpose. It’s a strong incentive to resolve our differences.”
For everything the inquiry didn’t say, Alexander said the report is successful for what it did say. The “airing of dirty laundry” has put significant pressure on both sides to find a solution. Vale and USW met, briefly, in the two days preceding the report’s release. Although the talks broke down, again, Alexander said that’s better than prolonging the issues by forcing a settlement.
“Maybe an extra month now will force them to come to an agreement,” he said. “If the government imposed the recommended contract, it would become a negotiating tactic for the union in the future.”
Although employers are pleased with the inquiry’s first report, Alexander said they question why this dispute required the intervention of an inquiry. Other strikes have dragged on longer, he said. Employers want to see the provincial government tread “very carefully” from here.
“We don’t want to send the wrong message,” he said. “We need foreign investment in Canada, including Vale.”
The final report, due by February 25, will deal with “other matters” the inquiry commission deems important. Meanwhile, no new negotiations are scheduled between Vale and USW.
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