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STRIKE BANS

In Montreal, a civilizing effect

 

 

INGRID PERITZ

April 29, 2008

 

 

MONTREAL -- Once upon a time in Montreal, public-transit strikes seemed as common as Stanley Cup parades. They occurred almost annually, with devastating results.

 

There was a month-long walkout during Expo 67; another in 1974 that dragged on for 44 days. In 1977, workers walked off the job for four days, then walked out again during Grey Cup festivities. Each time, Montrealers fumed.

 

These days, strikes have become almost as rare as hockey playoff victories and when conflicts arise, the effects are diminished, thanks to Quebec's Essential Services law.

 

Basic transit service is guaranteed in Montreal during strikes, a fact that brings a measure of civility to the city's turbulent labour relations.

 

 

"The Montreal system, with predictable essential-services rules, has been a good system," said Allan Ponak, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary who has co-authored a book on the subject. "Predictable rules like you have in Montreal are better than ad hoc rules created in an urgent situation."

 

The justification used by the Quebec government for declaring public transit an essential service in 1982 went like this: If everyone drove cars during a strike, traffic jams would threaten the safe passage of emergency vehicles.

 

The law not only had a dissuasive effect on strikes - there have been only two in the past two decades - but it softened their impact when they did occur.

 

Last May, for example, 2,200 maintenance workers went on strike to press for a new contract. The Essential Services Council ordered full bus and subway service during morning and afternoon peak hours, as well as late at night.

 

"There's no question that public transit is an essential service just like hospitals," said Reynald Bourque, director of the School of Labour Relations at the University of Montreal. "The system is beneficial because it balances the rights of the striking workers with the rights of users."

Unions have also come around to realizing they need public opinion on their side during conflicts - Quebec has floated the idea of restricting or abolishing the right to strike for public transit unions. So unions, too, have come to live with essential-services rules, a specialist says.

 

"We really have succeeded in civilizing the right to strike in public transit," said Michel Grant a professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal. "It's a model, and if they'd had had it in Toronto there wouldn't have been a problem and they wouldn't have needed a special law."

 

Maintenance employees and drivers in Montreal belong to separate unions. Montreal's bus and subway drivers, who belong to the Canadian Union of Public Employees, voted overwhelmingly in February for a new five-year contract. As for maintenance workers, their strike last May ended in only four days. They voted to return to work to dodge the threat of a government-imposed settlement, but remain without a contract.

 

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20080429.TTCMONTREAL29/TPStory/TPNational/Ontario/

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