When union members picketed outside BC Liquor Distribution Branch earlier this month, British Columbians may have wondered why a flood of alcohol and cannabis was deemed necessary during a pandemic but not in the context of an impending strike.
The answer lies in the very concept of “essential services” and in British Columbia’s solution to the question at the heart of public sector labor relations: how can frontline workers fight for their rights without endangering the people they serve?
It was a puzzle that the first chairman of the provincial Labor Relations Board (LRB) solved 50 years ago when he developed a new way to resolve disputes involving police officers and hospital workers.
Paul Weiler coined the so-called “controlled strike,” where both parties at the negotiating table agree—before any action—to reduce service levels that may cause inconvenience to the public, but do not threaten health and safety.
But since then, there has been debate about what is essential and what level of maintenance it requires.
“The legal affirmation of the moral principle is that there are more important values than the right to strike, than even collective bargaining itself,” Weiler wrote in his seminal book. reconcilable differences.
“Innocent members of the community cannot be allowed to be injured or even killed because the union and the employer cannot reach an agreement at the negotiating table.”
Essential services are discussed months before a decision is made
The 33,000 members of the British Columbia General Workers Union (BCGEU), the province’s largest public sector union, are currently looking for a deal that will protect them from inflation and rising living costs. They also cited workload and staffing issues.
The LRB issued a temporary essential services order the day before the union issued a 72-hour strike notice; three days later, employees at four liquor and cannabis centers quit their jobs.
By law, neither could have happened without the interim order that the union and the government have been working out before the board of directors since February of last year.
It is a living document that the board can amend as the conflict continues. The order itself is only four pages long, but an appendix with a detailed list of positions and service levels runs up to 1,500 pages. It hasn’t been made public yet.
Labor law veteran Leo McGrady, who was called to the bar in 1969, recalls the wildcat strikes that preceded the passage of basic services legislation under the NDP government in the 1970s; prior to this, dismissal of medical personnel from work was illegal.
“Despite the fact that these groups were forbidden by law to strike, they still went on strike. And you can imagine the nightmare that presented itself to the government and society,” he says.
“immediate and grave danger”
The Employment Relations Code defines essential services as “facilities, production and services … necessary or essential to prevent an immediate and serious danger to the health, safety or welfare of British Columbians.”
The BCGEU website is careful to point out that these may not be the services that were assigned by the government during the pandemic, when the province’s economic health was also an important consideration, so liquor branch workers may be on strike now. but could not when British Columbia was struggling with a global crisis.
The question of what makes a service necessary is a tricky one.
In 2007, the LRB declined to make a statement about programs serving low-income children at two East Vancouver community centers due to a dispute between the City of Vancouver and its workers.
And in 2015, the board ruled that while transporting cancer patients and dialysis patients by EMTs is important, transferring discharged patients home or for extended periods is not mandatory.
“The critical moment is ‘imminent and grave danger,'” the council wrote in the City of Vancouver’s decision.
“The inconvenience, frustration and hardship caused by strikes or lockouts in the public sector do not immediately equate to immediate and serious danger.”
Not all services offered as essential services are related to difficult situations.
In 1994, the city of Victoria tried unsuccessfully to make park maintenance mandatory during the Commonwealth Games because “the economic importance of tourism … is such that the well-being of the city’s inhabitants is at risk.”
McGrady recalls taking a tour of restaurants near the university with the LRB chairman to refute an academic manager’s claim that on-campus dining services are essential for pampered students.
“There were times when you thought you were in a Monty Python parody,” he says.
Management gains the ability to “walk in their shoes”
McGrady says British Columbia was the first province to introduce essential services legislation, but the concept has since spread across Canada.
Weiler was considered one of North America’s leading labor law scholars. He developed the British Columbia Labor Relations Code and chaired the board for five years beginning in 1973. He died last year.
A key feature of Weiler’s vision was that managers and excluded personnel should work 60-hour weeks doing tasks for their employees during the strike.
BCGEU President Stephanie Smith told the CBC that its members view the burden on management as an educational opportunity, an opportunity to “step in their shoes.”
“In fact, there is a widespread perception that management…does not understand the day-to-day working lives of the members they supervise,” she said.
The government declined to comment due to a media outage due to the resumption of negotiations.
In a statement released last week, the Public Services Agency said the LRB “ensures that adequate levels of essential services are in place to enable the government to continue to provide critical services that people in British Columbia rely on.”
Smith agreed to discuss issues beyond those discussed at the negotiating table.
In the end, she says, it’s all about leverage.
“It’s about putting pressure on those in power,” she says.
“The biggest power workers have is to act collectively…and it’s about putting pressure on those who really have the right to make decisions that directly affect workers’ lives.”