January 14, 2013
OTTAWA, ON, Jan. 14, 2013/ Troy Media/ – Rotating strikes by Ontario teachers is only the latest example of what a terrible mistake we made in the 1960s and 1970s when the decision was made by various governments to grant public sector workers the right to strike.
Few today even remember that powerful public sector trade unions are a relatively recent creation. And while trade unions, before they were granted the right to strike, amusingly described public sector labour negotiations as ‘collective begging,’ the very special and unusual position of public sector workers makes strikes there unusually damaging to the rest of society.
Now, after a decade of buying labour peace, the Ontario government, facing a crisis of deteriorating finances and intractable unions, has passed a special law to put an end to the current round of negotiations, to the fury of the unions, which are now retaliating.
But rather than deal awkwardly on a case by case basis with the consequences of public sector strikes, as this law does, we should be asking whether the right to strike is an appropriate tool for public sector labour relations at all.
There was a reason why public sector workers were not entitled to strike before the 1970s: it was a recognition that private sector and public sector employers are simply not the same animal. Governments exercise a monopoly over the provision of many vital services in a way that virtually no private sector employer ever can.
If the unionized autoworkers go on strike at GM or Ford or Chrysler, you can still buy a car from (non-union) Honda or Hyundai or Toyota. If Air Canada goes on strike, you can still fly WestJet or Porter or drive or take the train. But if the nurses, teachers, air traffic controllers or hydro workers strike, the service they provide is withdrawn.
This draws the public into public sector labour disputes in a way that hardly ever occurs in private sector negotiations. And politicians always have a nervous eye on voters’ discontent. Thus, for years, public sector workers were essentially not allowed to strike. The consequence of public sector workers effectively wielding a veto over whether public services were available was that the state restricted the damage that power could do.
There is another way in which the public sector employer is different than the private employer. Companies face the discipline of the bottom line: they must make money selling goods or services that people want to buy at prices they are willing to pay. If private employers fail this test, they go out of business. Governments cannot go out of business. They pay their bills through taxation, which means they need not trouble themselves too much about whether people think they are getting good value for their tax dollars.
Finally, the customers for public services, people using hospitals and schools, for instance, don’t pay the full cost of labour settlements the way customers of private sector firms do. The costs of public sector settlements fall on all taxpayers, and those costs are all tangled up in a complex tax burden rather than a straightforward bill for a private service that consumers can understand.
In the private sector, union power is in terminal decline as work shifts away from traditional blue collar occupations in natural resources and manufacturing to white collar services. People are more confident in their own abilities to represent their own on-the-job interests and are more reluctant to see a bureaucratic third party representing their interests to their employers. Free trade and globalization mean that workers and firms in Canada must work together to overcome foreign competition. Their interests are not opposed, but aligned.
The one area of the economy where unionism still holds unchallenged sway is the public sector because of the unique features of government employers and the power that confers on their employees: the politicization of public sector negotiations, the lack of the discipline of the bottom line and the way the cost of labour agreements is spread across all taxpayers.
These differences cry out for a different approach to public sector wage negotiations, one where strikes have no place.
Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.
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