Eyes turn to Vale, Steel hearing – by Carol Muggigan (Sudbury Star – December 8, 2011)

The Sudbury Star is the City of Greater Sudbury’s daily newspaper.

Ontario labour leaders will be watching Sudbury today when lawyers for Vale Ltd. and United Steelworkers present final arguments in a drawn-out complaint by the union to the Ontario Labour Relations Board.

Depending on the outcome, the result could “put a real chill on the collective bargaining process,” said McMaster University professor Wayne Lewchuk. USW complained to the board about the firing of nine members during the union’s bitter year-long strike against Vale from July 2009 to July 2010.

Vale dismissed the workers, one of whom retired after the strike, because of alleged misconduct on picket lines and in the community.

The union wants the labour board to order Vale to have the dismissals dealt with by a provincial arbitrator, said USW Local 6500 president Rick Bertrand.

Lewchuk, a professor with McMaster’s School of Labour Studies and its Department of Economics, said the decision could set “a potentially problematic precedent” for unionized workers.

While it has been done, it is “certainly, certainly the exception” that workers fired during a labour dispute don’t return to their jobs when the dispute is resolved.

“Strikes are stressful times. People may make decisions, then they regret later on, and they end up paying a massive price,” said Lewchuk.

If striking employees perform criminal acts during a dispute, “there’s a criminal law system that can discipline them,” said the professor.

“So, if someone decides to burn down someone’s house, well, that’s a criminal act and they should be penalized under criminal laws.”

But, if strikers can be fired for non-criminal actions, an employer can use this “as a bit of a threat to say, ‘Look, if you go on strike again, you risk losing your job.’ ”

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