BUSINESS

Edmonton Taxi Strike Looms As Unionization Talks Break Down

07/18/2012 07:47 EDT | Updated 08/07/2012 01:37 EDT
Flickr: velkr0

Taxi service could slow significantly in Edmonton this summer as close to a third of the city’s drivers are preparing for a possible strike, The Huffington Post has learned.

Following months of strained negotiations between the Greater Edmonton Taxi Service (GETS) and representatives from Teamsters Local 987, which represents about 800 GETS drivers, collective bargaining talks officially broke down on Wednesday when the company walked away from the table, the union says.

According to David Froelich, secretary treasurer for Teamsters Local 987, the move is a last-ditch effort on the part of the employer to deflate the unionization drive, which has been the union's most significant attempt to organize taxi drivers in the province so far.

“The company is just simply refusing to negotiate,” Froelich said. “Clearly their intention is to avoid getting a collective agreement at all costs.”

A majority of GETS drivers voted in favour of taking strike action as talks approached an impasse in May, Froelich says. He did not give a specific date, but said the union is planning to serve strike notice in the coming weeks. Alberta labour law requires that employers be given at least 72 hours notice before workers walk off the job.

The collective bargaining talks were a first for GETS and the drivers, who voted overwhelmingly in favour of union certification in early 2011, primarily in response to company-imposed insurance surcharges and a city bylaw that no longer requires taxi brokers to be transparent about the true cost of insurance, Froelich says.

GETS operates a number of taxi brands in the city, including Yellow Cab, Barrel Taxi, Checker and Prestige Cabs, and employs about a third of the city’s estimated 2,500 taxi drivers. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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In May 2010, Teamsters 987 ratified the first collective agreement with Airport Service Taxi, making the company’s 250 drivers the first in the province’s history to unionize. The union has since expanded the organizing effort to include drivers two taxi companies in Fort McMurray.

But the breakdown in negotiations could be a major roadblock for this specific unionization drive, as well as the Teamsters' -- and other labour groups' -- broader efforts to organize cab drivers across Canada. They are watching the outcome of the Edmonton drive closely.

Unlike the vast majority of Canadian provinces, Alberta does not mandate first contract arbitration, meaning a binding agreement cannot be imposed on the business and union if it's the first time the two are signing a contract. Thus, if talks dissolve, in many cases negotiations essentially deteriorate into something of a war of attrition.

According to Jason Foster, a labour relations expert at Athabasca University, the employer generally has the upper hand in these cases, as workers often grow tired of waging what has likely already been a lengthy and tense organizing drive.

“It essentially gives the employer one more crack at defeating the union, because they can … bargain to stalemate and wait them out,” Foster said.

“That's a very difficult organizing spot for a union to be in. Most of the time, the union gets decertified, and it’s only in exceptional circumstances where they find a way to succeed.”

In this instance, however, it isn’t immediately clear which side will hold the balance of power in the event of a strike.

With union organizers facing the usual challenges in keeping workers onside, Foster says the fact the Teamsters won such an overwhelming majority of support from GETS drivers — 93 per cent voted in favour — will make them more difficult to defeat.

And as Froelich points out, they also have another important bargaining chip.

“This isn’t like a warehouse strike. Our drivers are mobile. The city is their place of employment. And until some court or the labour board tells us otherwise, we will be making our presence felt all over the place," he said.

“If the cabs don’t move, Edmonton doesn’t move."

CORRECTION: Greater Edmonton Taxi Service employs approximately a third of taxi drivers in Edmonton. Earlier reports stated that GETS represented half of the city's cab drivers. We regret the error.

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