Labour mediation embraces a variety of processes for resolving disputes between employers and trade unions in the organized sector of the labour market. Mediation is used to resolve "interest disputes" as the parties bargain the term of a collective agreement, and "rights disputes" as to the meaning of the terms of a collective agreement.
Since early in this century, a principal characteristic of the Canadian collective bargaining system and labour legislation (see Collective Bargaining and Labour Law) has been the active involvement of government as an "honest broker" to assist employers and trade unions in bargaining a collective agreement. Where the parties reach an impasse in direct bargaining over the terms of a collective agreement, either is entitled to have recourse to economic sanction whether by way of strike in the case of the employees, or lockout in the case of employer. However, all Canadian jurisdictions require that the parties first go through a mediation process termed "conciliation" before exercising the right to strike or lockout.
The Conciliation Process
A variety of conciliation models are used, but all include government conciliation officers employed in the civil service who are appointed in order to facilitate the bargaining process at the request of either party engaged in collective bargaining. Tripartite conciliation boards which comprise nominees of each of the parties and a neutral third party chair selected by the nominees are provided as a further step in the conciliation process in many jurisdictions, but their use is limited largely to public-sector labour disputes. A variation is the conciliation commissioner, an independent third party neutral appointed by government to facilitate resolution of a bargaining dispute.
Conciliation officers function informally, and report the outcome of their endeavours only to government. Conciliation boards and conciliation commissioners function more formally and submit to government and to the parties a formal report of their findings with recommendations for the resolution of a dispute. These reports are made public and, although not binding, often serve as the basis for resolution of the dispute by the parties. Poststrike or lockout mediation, drawing on expertise either from within or from outside of government, has become an additional feature of labour mediation in Canada, associated most often with long drawn out and intractable labour disputes.
Last Two Decades
In the last 2 decades, recourse has been had to labour mediation to assist in the resolution of rights disputes under a collective agreement. Typically, government provides mediators to assist the parties to resolve a grievance arising under a collective agreement prior to remitting the matter to binding arbitration. Such mediators are often drawn from the same ranks as those who provide conciliation services in interest disputes, although more recently there has been a move in some jurisdictions to privatize this function and separate it from labour mediation services provided by government.