As the provincial government spends the weekend drafting back-to-work legislation that will impose a contract on BC teachers, I found this opinion piece I wrote back in the year 2000, when the previous BC government legislated CUPE school support workers back to work. Still feels remarkably timely. So, just thought I’d re-post that old piece (unedited). Here it is:
Balancing two essentials: Public services and the right to strike
by Seth Klein, May 1, 2000
The provincial government’s recent decision to legislate CUPE school support staff back to work raises once again the issue of what constitutes an “essential” service, and when the need for public services should take precedence over the right to strike. The debate isn’t going to go away–the provincial Liberals have promised that, if elected, they would declare education an essential service, forever foreclosing on the right of education workers to engage in legal strike action.
There is, however, a disturbing double-standard plaguing the essential services debate.
We cannot treat people poorly–freeze their wages, increase workloads, refuse to bargain, and, according to a new Angus Reid survey, create the most stressful workplaces—-and then claim they are essential. Either the work of public employees is unimportant, and thus cannot be labeled “essential”; or their work is vital, in which case they should be treated and remunerated on a scale that properly reflects their importance to a healthy and caring society–thereby eliminating the need to strike. Take your pick, but we cannot have it both ways.
Public services are critically important. We depend on them to teach our kids, cure us when we are ill, protect the environment and children in need, care for the elderly, keep our roads and neighbourhoods safe, and much more. When these services are underfunded–or worse, if they disappear–we feel it.
But that does not mean public employees should be denied the right to strike.
Some perspective is needed in this debate. When the withdrawal of a service threatens life and limb, some restriction on strike activity is justified. But when it is merely inconvenient, or even temporarily costly, then superseding the right to strike represents a major blow to a fundamental democratic principle.
Strikes, particularly public sector strikes, often generate public hostility. But why is the public so quick to support a ban on the right to strike? The answer lies in a number of prevailing myths.
1) Many people’s only view of unions is during strikes. As a result, there is little appreciation for the fact that more than 95 percent of collective bargaining occurs without resorting to strike action. Simply put, no one makes the decision to strike–and forego their pay–lightly.
2) Too many people believe that if strikes were banned, labour tensions would disappear. Not so. In fact, unions can frequently use the credible threat of a strike to avert an actual strike. Often, the bloodiest strikes (and the lowest worker morale) occur in precisely those authoritative regimes where unions are tightly controlled or even banned.
In the past, Canada experienced dozens of strikes by public employees, even before such strikes were legally sanctioned. Why? Because strikes are the culmination of pressures, problems and pent-up frustrations that eventually have to find some outlet.
3) Many people fail to appreciate how strike action in the past has improved current wages and working conditions, for both unionized and non-unionized workers. By having laws that allow workers to organize–and when necessary to withhold their labour–unions have been an historical force for economic and social justice. Indeed, unions, along with our system of state taxes and public programs, are the two key institutions working people have built to ensure a more equitable distribution of income and wealth.
In short, unions help workers get a slightly larger share of the income pie than they otherwise would. Statistics Canada figures show that unionized workers make an average of $4.29 an hour more than non-union workers. And the public as a whole benefits from that; it means more money in local hands and spent in local communities.
Ultimately, all workers have to bargain with is their labour and skills. Eliminate the right to withhold that labour, and workers no longer have any bargaining power–and inequality increases. Bargaining without the right to strike is largely meaningless; it’s like having to play hockey when your team has no sticks.
Instead of banning strikes, we should seek to resolve the underlying issues that lead to strikes.
Interestingly, many European countries have a much lower incidence of public sector strikes, but not because they are banned. Rather the Dutch, Austrians, Swedes, Germans, Norwegians and others strive to make sure their public sector employees feel less of a need to strike, by compensating and treating their employees fairly and adequately.
Topics: Employment & labour