Are public service strikes necessary?

Published on January 26, 2010

We have just dodged two bullets with the settlement of the public service labour disputes.

One noted the great sigh of relief heard across the province, when settlements were reached at the very last moment.

These settlements came at a price: not only were patients sent home early, but elective surgeries cancelled, school routines badly disrupted and working parents who depend upon school buses were concerned about their children’s safety.

We should know shortly the impact these settlements will have on the provincial budget. Of course, at the moment, we do not know if these contracts will be ratified by their memberships.

These disputes between various CUPE locals and the provincial government brought to the fore - again - the issue of how negotiations between members of public sector unions and the government should be handled. To put it bluntly, should public sector unions be permitted to strike and, similarly, should the employer have the authority to “lockout” these workers?

The “right” to strike or to lockout are not guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These rights are granted through legislation, adopted either by provincial legislature or the Parliament of Canada. They are subject to amendment at any time. One should not confuse the right of a union to bargain collectively with the right to strike or lockout.

The field of labour relations has evolved over many years. There are many examples of what one might classify as illegal but necessary strikes because of the harsh treatment of workers by the owners or management of the enterprise. In the early years of the last century, the state became the umpire of labour disputes when legislation was introduced governing collective bargaining.

Any labour dispute is between the workers and management: for example, if General Motors was on strike, the only individuals involved are the workers and the owner. The customers have an alternative, Ford. But, with the growth of government, and government enterprise, this scene has changed.

Today, in certain provinces and at the national level, many public sector employees - including nurses, the police, and the military - are not permitted to strike or be locked out, as they are classified as essential services. They do have the power to bargain collectively, but they are denied the use of the strike weapon. In the public sector, there are three sides to a dispute: the workers, the government and the general public, consumers of the service, and through taxation, are responsible for the workers’ salaries. It is the general public who are the victims of any public sector labour dispute and, though not “at the table,” will eventually, through taxation or user fees, pay for the settlement.

The political price

Government can change the rules of the game whenever it wishes. It may, in the long run, pay a price for changing the landscape but, under normal circumstances, this will only happen at the next general election. NDP governments in Saskatchewan and Ontario suffered politically from the actions of their public sector trade union “friends.”

One wonders if the same fate will befall the NDP in Nova Scotia. It would be wrong for the Nova Scotia NDP to relax now these two disputes appear to have been settled. Not only are there more contract negotiations on the agenda, but the handling of the health workers’ strike in particular has not won the government many friends.

As things are quiet, it would be a very good time for government to establish an independent group to research public sector labour relations. There are many questions, including is the status quo satisfactory? Should Nova Scotia introduce some form of mandatory mediation? From time to time governments will legislate strikers back to work and, at the same time, have the dispute sent to “binding arbitration.” It might be more advantageous for all sides - and particularly the public, to refer the matter to binding arbitration if and when negotiations break down, rather than after a strike is been underway.

The question of who and what are essential services also needs to be discussed in a meaningful, yet purposeful, manner, rather than in the midst of a contract dispute. Labour courts as a form of mediation also deserve consideration.

Using the argument only President Nixon could have gone to China, one might say only the NDP could establish such a research project on the future of public sector labour relations. If either the Liberals or Progressive Conservatives launched such a study, they would immediately be chastised for being anti-labour. The NDP would not suffer this fate, though they might momentarily annoy one or other of the public sector unions.

Working for workers

Unions resort to strikes as a last resort. Most strikers would far sooner be working than picketing!

It is doubtful anyone would like to see the end of collective bargaining or the right of workers of any description to organize. There was a relatively recent case in Ontario, when an individual did not wish to be a member of the union. It was pointed out membership was an integral part of his employment package. Individuals may opt-out of a union, but they still pay union dues: the union negotiates for all workers, not just union members.

Nova Scotia has some of the most liberal labour legislation in Canada; for example, university faculty have the right to strike, but not in Ontario.

The issue is how to protect the neutral citizens, inadvertently involved in any public sector labour dispute. In other words, how to protect individuals whose surgery was postponed. No individual deserves such treatment, and that is why, Mr. Premier, as we are not facing a labour crises at the moment, a review of the entire public service labour legislation is overdue. It may be following this review the status quo will be upheld but, as we have not examined any alternatives, we do not know this as fact. We should know if public service strikes are, indeed, necessary.