09 October 2010

Information expropriation: Premier threatens industrial inquiry over Voisey’s strike

Premier Danny Williams is warning both parties in the 14 month old strike at Voisey’s Bay that his administration will appoint and industrial inquiry commission under the province’s labour laws to settle the dispute if the parties can’t find agreement within 14 days.

Under the Labour Relations Act, the province’s labour minister may appoint a commission of as few as one person to inquire into a dispute under terms of reference set by the minister.

Some news reports refer to the purpose of the inquiry to "maintain and secure industrial peace." 

That’s not really the strength of the inquiry approach in this case.

The commission will operates with the powers of a conciliation board under the same act.  That’s an important step in the collective bargaining process the provincial government skipped in its sudden desire to intervene in the lengthy strike.

The real value of an inquiry for the provincial government  - as opposed to a simple conciliation board – is that the government alone controls not only the outcome but when and how the results of the inquiry investigations will go to the public.

Think of it as information expropriation and the threat is clear enough in the Premier’s comments:

“Why aren't they settling? Does the company have some reason it doesn't want to settle? Why did it settle in Sudbury and not settle in Newfoundland and Labrador?…

"If the union is getting some of the wage demands that it wants but not getting everything that it wants, is there some reason why the union is not settling? Is it personalities?"

With a conciliation board, the parties would settle the strike with the help of a government panel.  With an inquiry, there is the threat that one side or the other or maybe both will have their private information tossed into the public bear-pit. The government may not make the information public, though. They may just sit on it and use what they learn about the profitability of the company operation for their own purposes.

It’s not like they haven’t tried that sort of thing before with other companies. Anyone ever hear of the data room application?

- srbp -