USS Hamilton: To vote or not to vote
As Steel Market Update has been following the events and lockout of USW 1005 members from U.S. Steel Hamilton Mill since the beginning, we have received quite a response from those associated with the mill. Click Here to see our coverage of the lockout. Below is a letter sent to SMU pertaining to the ever-present question: To vote or not to vote?
In the blog SMU posted on Jan. 10, 2011 Jake Lombardo Vice President of Local 1005 is quoted as stating: “As for taking a contract to the membership the company under law has the right to take it (last offer) to a final vote. Why would WE take their offer?”
There are really two questions that need to be answered:
Why wouldn’t the company request a government supervised vote? The labour laws in Ontario certainly give the company that right.
The second is why wouldn’t the union take the final offer to the membership for a secret ballot vote?
Before attempting to answer these questions let’s be clear that in every contract negotiation the union makes demands or proposals and companies make offers. In every single vote at the former Stelco since 1946 the union has taken the company’s offer to the membership with the negotiating committee recommending either acceptance or rejection. All offers are company offers. Even the company’s offer that ended the 1990 no vote strike was taken to the membership by the union.
There are only three possible outcomes of any contract vote:
1. Acceptance. It doesn’t matter if it 51 % or 99% the offer is accepted and work goes on.
2. Rejected by a small majority. The smaller the majority the more problematic.
3. Rejected by a large majority.
The third is the only outcome good for a union recommending rejection. The second is problematic because it means the union is deeply divided and any movement by the company or time itself without a pay check might swing enough votes for acceptance of the offer.
Why wouldn’t the company request a government supervised vote?
Before any company (not just US Steel) requests a vote in Ontario two conditions must both exist. First business conditions have to be such that the company needs to or wants to run the operation and avoid a work stoppage or end an existing stoppage. I do not have the business facts to offer an opinion but I think one could make a good argument that the Hamilton operation is not exactly critical to US Steel making a profit or suffering a loss.
The second condition that must also exist is that the company must have a very strong belief that, in a union sanctioned vote, a large majority of the employees would vote to accept the offer even if the negotiating committee was recommending rejection. This is because some employees who would otherwise vote for acceptance will change their vote to no just because the company is forcing the vote. This swing vote from yes to no could be small or quite large depending on emotions, the timing of the vote, business conditions, etc. If the company actively promotes and tries to “sell” the offer then they run the very real risk of alienating additional employees and increasing the size of the swing vote. At the same time the union can lobby for rejection with immunity.
I don’t know how any company could accurately predict the outcome of a free vote let alone the size of the swing votes in a company requested vote.
In addition, if successful (acceptance of the offer) a company requested vote will likely damage labour relations for years to come. Plus if the forced vote fails, the union’s bargaining position is enhanced and any stoppage will likely be longer.
Only companies that are desperate and grasping at straws would request a vote because there is far too much risk and downside. This certainly is not the case with US Steel.
The fact is that the existing law simply does not work and as a result companies in Ontario seldom request a government supervised vote. (Keep reading for a possible solution).
Why wouldn’t the union take the final offer to the membership for a vote?
This is only the second time in the history of Local 1005 that the membership has not been allowed to vote on a final offer. The only other time was in 1990 when North America was in a deep recession and the steel industry in the US was shedding jobs in the tens of thousands.
So why no final offer vote this time? Certainly nobody with a sound mind believes Local 1005 when Rolf says the “900 active members should not decide for 9,000 pensioners”. In every single vote since the formation of unions only active employees have the right to vote. Never has a Local 1005 retiree had the right to vote even though every single contract has contained language that affects pensioners. In fact, in 1993 the union negotiating committee recommended acceptance and membership voted on and accepted a contract that drastically reduced the pension indexing provision. Pension indexing started following the 1990 strike with a calculation based on the CPI with a 3% per year minimum. The 1993 contract removed the 3% minimum and consequently in many of the past 17 years the indexing has been nil or very small. Clearly this is a case of the union not being totally open and honest.
Could it be that the union might be concerned that their members might actually, in a secret vote, accept the company’s final offer? I believe this to be a distinct possibility and this is also apparent from the majority of the comments to the SMU survey.[To see one of SMU's survey on voting and comments,Click Here]
It is a fact that too many Canadians have gone to too many wars so we can enjoy a life of freedoms that include freedom of speech and the freedom to decide one’s own destiny. This seems to be lost on some that think only union solidarity matters.
I was a supervisor who arranged for a tow truck to enter the plant one night to remove an employee’s car from the parking lot a #3 Bloom and Billet Mill. It was the only one of almost a hundred in the parking lot that night that had four slashed flat tires. As I stood and watched with a group of employees it was the elected union steward that remarked “I guess he must of run over some scrap on the way in” chuckle, chuckle. I was also present when another vocal employee had his brand new car doused with yellow safety paint. He was almost in tears when he said “How am I going to explain this to my wife and kids? We haven’t even made the first payment yet!”
I was also a supervisor at #1 Bloom and Billet Mill just prior to a contract vote when I rounded a corner in the mill one day and there were four employees watching as a union steward screamed at another employee whom he had pinned against the wall with his forearm across the pinned employee’s neck. I was able to stop the altercation but management was unable to properly deal with the situation because when interviewed, the employees (including the accosted) claimed nothing happened, nobody saw or heard anything. Years later two of the witnesses confided to me, off the record over a beer at a retirement dinner, that they were sorry they did not step forward and tell the truth but at the time they were truly afraid for their own safety.
We read all too often in the papers about school bullying, harassment and intimidation. Anybody who thinks these factors are not a significant factor in the workplace today has their heads buried in the sand. Could intimidation be the reason current employees are not demanding a vote on the company’s final offer?
In today’s civilized societies union solidarity should never trample on or trump individual freedoms.
A Possible Solution
Even though it will not help resolve the current situation there is a possible solution to this no vote issue. In Ontario either party can request a government conciliator issue a no board report after assessing the negotiations impasse. Once the report is issued the parties will be in a legal strike/lockout position 17 days later. During this period the law should require a government supervised vote on the final offer. Both sides would then know where they stand and the employees will be guaranteed the freedom to vote on an issue that will greatly affect their future.
In closing let me state again that it is my sincere wish that both sides work to resolve the impasses so this stoppage does not last a day longer than necessary.
Brian Hatch Former Stelco Employee (Manager) and Current US Steel Pensioner