2008-04-29

Should the Right to Strike be Sacrosanct

The labour movement has always held the Right to Strike to be sacrosanct. In reality though, the biggest gains made by workers have been gained during illegal, rather than legal strikes. Indeed it is union solidarity rather than the legal Right to Strike that is key. Workers will always have the effective ability to strike as long as they have solidarity in their ranks.

But that does not mean that strikes are always the best way to settle a dispute that cannot be settled at the bargaining table. As one who worked for, perhaps the most essential of public services, democracy itself, I did not have the Right to Strike. Instead we had compulsory arbitration. On at least one occasion simply serving notice of arbitration brought the employer (House of Commons) back to the table with an offer we could not reject. I have to admit it was somewhat reassuring to not have to worry about going on strike and losing income to settle a bargaining dispute. And, of course, the bottom line was that as long as we had solidarity we always had the effective ability to strike if that became necessary.

The recent TTC strike fiasco is an example of the ineffective use of the legal Right to Strike. The TTC workers are one of those groups of public sector workers that have a fictitious legal Right to Strike. It is often expressed this way by politicians: “we will respect your Right to Strike as long as you do not abuse it”. And by “abuse it” they mean actually “go on strike”.

The TTC strike was a fiasco because the workers went on strike knowing they would be legislated back to work and knowing they did not have the intention, or the solidarity, to continue the strike after they were legislated back to work. So all they accomplished was upsetting the general public. There was obviously something else going on there. The strike was more of an “emotional” response to something going on between workers and management beyond the terms of the proposed contract or something going on between the workers and their union leadership.

The real problem with public sector strikes is that they do not affect the employer’s bottom line. In a private sector strike you shut down production and the employers revenues and profits go down. In a public sector strike you shut down public services and the employers costs go down. There is a real bottom line incentive in that situation for the employer to try to manipulate the union into a strike.

A more effective TTC union response would have been to take the initiative to propose arbitration at the same time they announced the membership had rejected the tentative agreement. This way they could have not only avoided the wrath of the public but gained their support. Instead they called a strike they had no intention or ability to continue, knowing that the end result would be compulsory arbitration.

Why is arbitration not used more often voluntarily in the public sector.

Employers have often expressed a dislike for it because it means turning over “budgetary decisions” to a third party, or so they claim. They also, apparently, fear costlier settlements than those after a strike. It also means they do not have the savings from unpaid wages during a strike to offset wage increases awarded by an arbitrator.

Unions do not like it because of the feeling that the Right to Strike is sacrosanct and that agreeing to arbitration can be seen as a sign of weakness.

Strikes are not always successful. The big problem with public sector strikes is that they affect the public more than the employer and indeed they can save the employer money. Another way that does not upset the public is worth trying. I think public sector unions have a lot to gain by giving arbitration a chance. It does not require giving up your Right to Strike, just not using it for one set of negotiations at a time.

It may very well be that in many cases the employer will reject arbitration. So be it. The employer can then feel the wrath of the public when workers are forced to strike.

1 comment:

Chris Lawson said...

Unions that favour the right to strike (and not all of them do) don't do it because to favour arbitration would seem "weak" but because having the right to strike has historically been how unions have made their gains.

Arbitrators split differences and follow precedents. Those precedents are set by rounds of negotiations that involve the right to strike or lock out.

And more often than not, those gains are made after some sort of work stoppage.

Unions that opt for binding arbitration are, essentially, riding on the coat tails of those unions that are willing to take risks and make the sacrifices that having the right to strike entails.

If no one had the right to strike, you can bet that arbitration wouldn't seem anywhere near as reasonable an option. To the workers at least.