Dispute Resolution in “Essential Services”:. Procedural Experimentation in Canada

Publication Date01 Feb 1986
AuthorJohn Goodman,Joe Chattin
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour
in "Essential
in Canada
by John Goodman and Joe Chattin
Department of Management Sciences,
In its handling of public sector pay, the present British
Government appears to have given higher priority to the
minimisation of public expenditure than to the avoidance
of disputes. It has on several occasions "taken" (or not
deterred other public sector employers from "taking")
lengthy stoppages rather than agree to refer pay disputes
to arbitration, largely on two grounds; first, that additional
money to finance any enhanced award was not available,
secondly, that to do so would be to abdicate respon-
sibility for a major element of public expenditure. Further,
it has sought the removal from public sector disputes pro-
cedures of provisions allowing either party unilateral access
to arbitral bodies, though by no means entirely successful-
ly as the gas industry and other examples illustrate. On the
other hand, its policy of tight cash limits, external borrow-
ing limits, rate-capping and other measures have had a
substantial effect on reducing the levels of public sector pay
settlements. Paradoxically, however, the two public services
widely regarded internationally as amongst the "most
the police and fire services, have both benefited
from now relatively well-entrenched formulae which have
generated pay increases for these groups significantly above
most other public sector groups. The new national agree-
ment on ambulance staff appears to offer similar prospects
for another group of "essential" workers.
The issue of modifying the right to strike in "essential" ser-
which normally implies publicly provided services, has
surfaced periodically in political circles since 1979. It was
included in both the 1979 and (more specifically) in the
1983 Conservative election manifestos. In 1981, a majority
of the House of Commons Select Committee on Employ-
ment called for legislative action to prohibit strikes affec-
ting public health and safety, and speculation was further
increased following remarks by the Prime Minister in the
wake of the 1983 water industry dispute. In July 1985, the
former Secretary of State for Employment promised a
sultative Document on the subject as possibly the next focus
in the Government's sequential approach to industrial rela-
tions legislation.
This rather protracted history suggests, however, that there
is considerable hesitation. The topic bristles with technical
complexities, and there is a plethora of alternative lines
which any legislation could take, if indeed it is pursued at
For example, new requirements could be added to ex-
isting disputes procedures by the addition of specific forms
of third-party conciliation, mediation or fact-finding, or new
constraints placed on the retention of trade union im-
munities in some parts of the public sector. Some further
extension of the independent pay review body system link-
ed to renunciation of industrial action could be attempted,
as in the case of the nurses and para-medics in 1983, or
some provision made concerning the introduction (failing
negotiated agreements) of compulsory arbitration, which
might be binding on the parties but residually subject to
review by the Government as paymaster. In possibly
turing into this area, the Government faces a major dilem-
ma in terms of a potential trade-off between the degree to
which strikes in selected "essential services" are constrain-
and the degree to which alternative means of dispute
resolution particularly in pay disputes are made more
independent of government influence. For its part, the
Government would undoubtedly prefer an option which ef-
fectively achieved the former, but made few concessions
to the latter, for example, a system which precluded both
strikes and binding arbitration. However, it is doubtful
whether, for many groups, the most extreme modification
of the right to strike, namely, simple prohibition as in the
case of the police could be introduced unless it was ac-
companied by some form of independent fact-finding or ad-
The changes introduced via the 1984 Trade
Union Act have already added an additional "hurdle"
through the requirement of majority votes in strike ballots.
This was illustrated in the narrow failure of the Civil Service
unions to achieve a majority for industrial action in 1985,
but such ballots can also be used tactically to increase
bargaining pressure.
The Mechanics of Intervention
Consideration of possible initiatives in this area can useful-
ly include international comparisons, although the different
national histories and environments caution against any
ple transference of techniques. Both Canada and the United
States have, in the past two decades or so, experienced ma-
jor growth of unionisation and collective bargaining in the
public services, with the experience in Canada being rather
lengthier than that of the US, and some of its approaches
(for there are many) towards "essential service" disputes
are examined here. Indeed, it has been observed that
"Canada has led all other nations in experimenting with
mechanisms for resolving public sector labour disputes"[1].
As a federal country, industrial relations legislation powers
are spread across ten provinces as well as (for federal and
certain other employees) the Federal Government. This has
led to considerable innovation and not a little diversity in
attempts to reconcile protection for the public and the
Government from disruption in the supply of "essential ser-
with preservation of the right of employees and their
collective bodies to participate in the determination of their
wages and conditions of employment. Although in most
8 ER 8,2 1986

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