WILDCAT STRIKES ARE THE WORST. At least that’s the way our rigged labour laws make them. But, maybe not so much in Alberta anymore. A recent decision by the Alberta Labour Board (ALB), meant to to punish a union for a wildcat strike, may encourage more wildcats.
Some healthcare members of AUPE (Alberta Union of Public Employees) dared to break the law in the fall of 2020. They mounted a one-day wildcat strike.
(Healthcare workers, and not just members of AUPE, were fuming over the government plans to press on with plans to lay off more than 11,000 healthcare workers, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Stirring the pot
AUPE argued there was no evidence it had planned the strike. The board disagreed It concluded that “there was nothing before the board to suggest the union took steps to discourage illegal strike activity prior to the strike commencing.”
The tribunal went on to say that the “AUPE knew the pot was starting to simmer. Not only did it not take any meaningful steps to turn down the heat, but once things boiled over and a strike was underway, it continued to stir the pot.”
The one-day wildcat will cost the union. The ALB has ordered Alberta Health Services to stop collecting union dues, assessments and other fees payable to the union for one month. A loss of $1.6 million, says the union.
Worth the price?
However, it might be a price worth paying say labour relations experts. The labour board’s decision may actually make “wildcat” strikes by members more likely, not less— the penalty even gives a small financial reward to wildcat participants by way of a dues holiday.
This decision will have little or no impact, said Athabasca University Labour Studies Professor Dr. Bob Barnetson. “The fact is workers know wildcats work.”
In this case, a small number of members walked off for half a day, with the result that each and every member of the bargaining unit saw a more than one per cent increase in their take-home pay for the month. They gained more on the apples than they lost on the oranges.
“Union members will no doubt be calculating cost/benefit analyses of various conduct for future rounds of bargaining,” says United Nurses of Alberta Labour Relations Director David Harrigan.
The wildcat advantage
Unlike formal strikes, “there are no rules for wildcats and the employer has no time to prepare,” Barnetson explained. “Workers aren’t going to give up that kind of leverage.”
“A $1.6-million dues suspension will not dampen workers’ appetite for future wildcats, which are always triggered by intolerable employer behaviour,” he added.
Instead of the union paying money by way of a fine to the state, he explained, rank-and-file members save money on union dues.
Moreover, Barnetson added, “unions are unlikely to act against wildcatting members. Explicitly sanctioning AUPE for supporting wildcatting members is not likely to move the union to take any direct action to force future wildcatters back to work.
AUPE has not yet published a response to the board’s decision.