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Is it Time to De-Fang the Unions?

Richard C. Pitt

Here in B.C. we're in the midst of a situation where government employees are so mad at the government that they are holding "protest" strikes. Today (May 3, 2004), a whole slew of union members that work for governments at all levels threatened to withhold their services - in schools, hospitals, ministries, power, licensing, everywhere. Some have followed through on this threat despite a late-night agreement between the HEU and government last night.

The question in my mind as this has evolved: "is this necessary in the face of repression - which is why unions evolved - or is it an act of ransom?"

In the past, I've belonged to a couple of unions - necessary to get and keep the jobs I had at the time; telecom and wood-worker - both back in the '60s and '70s. Since then I've had no union jobs and have not been an employer or manager with union employees. But even back when I was a union member, I had problems with some of the things I saw and was counseled to do (or not do as the case may be). From peer pressure to "not make others look bad by doing more than my share of install orders" during my time at BC Tel., to outright illegalities which I'd rather not discuss at all, I got a bad taste in my mouth from some of my dealings with "the union" and its more radical members.

Don't get me wrong, most of the people I worked with were great - and many were just as troubled by some of the things that went on as I was. The problem was that the tactics used by the shop stewards and the hot-heads were fairly intimidating at times - not outright heavy handed, but I was young and not all that self-confident, unlike today.

Since then I've learned more about the rise of the unions and seen more of their influence. I've also become an entrepreneur - the complete antithesis of a union person. From this vantage, I've decided that the pendulum has swung too far in favour of the union movement and it is time to do something about it. Let me tell you why I think that and what I think needs to be done.

In the past, during the industrial revolution when many people left the farms and went to cities, the employers held sway over the workers such that many were at most slaves. Working conditions in mines and factories were dreadful and dangerous, hours were long, and "company towns" practiced economic theft by charging usurious prices at the company store and rents for company housing. They controled competition so the only place in town for necessities was controlled by them. The union movement arose from this environment, and rightly so. The battle for workers' rights was long and at times bloody.
In some places in the world today, there is still a need for unions to battle this kind of control. Sweatshops making running shoes and clothing in third-world countries pay tiny fractions of the amount the company gets at retail (or even wholesale) selling the products in the developed world. Long hours and bad conditions are well documented by concerned groups, but the locals have not yet risen up in protest for any number of reasons.

Here in North America, and in fact in all of the developed world, things are different. Governments have enacted laws and there are officials who inspect and react with the full authority of law to adverse conditions of any kind. We have minimum wage laws, laws governing working hours, governing use of child labour, governing dangerous environments, and in fact dealing with virtually every aspect of work. The unions have been successful in getting the work environment changed and my hat is off to them.

The problem is, having done all this, those who run the unions are caught in a dilemma - what to do to justify their continued employment and hefty salaries and perks - because they no longer do it "just for the cause" - now it is a job like any other job, but one that depends on keeping their union members paying dues. To be sure, there are still some areas of employment where equity and working conditions may still be an issue - and I'm not above saying that the focal situation of the current protest might include this kind of thing. The problem is that the unions' ability to hold large segments of society to ransom far outweigh the relatively minor issues they are using as reasons for doing so... something is out of balance.

In the private sector there are few areas where a single union can hold virtually all of society to ransom, and in fact there are few areas where any critical infrastructure product or process is completely unionized. We no longer have the Teamsters holding complete control of trucking for instance. There are lots of small, non-unionized firms ready and willing to step in and pick up at least some of the slack in the event of a strike at the major firms. There are other unions who have locals in some firms as well - with different bargaining units and different contract terms, so that no single contract issue can bring the roads to a halt.

Similarly now in the (previously government regulated monopoly areas of) telecommunications and power industries today, especially with deregulation.

There are still some industries that are pretty much held sway by a single union or tight-knit group of unions, such as the forestry in BC, but even here we have competition from other provinces and countries able to fill the gap. This competition serves to put a brake on exorbitant contracts and levels the playing field. Any company that gives in to a union demand that makes it uncompetitive will suffer the effects of the market place and may even go under. The union people mostly understand that, no job due to no company is not a good thing, so they tend to hold their greatest weapon, strike, for truly monumental problem resolution.

Not so with the public sector. There is only one employer for each type of job in the public sector; the government at that level, civic, provincial, federal or somewhere in between. You can't go to a different government's offices to get your driver's license renewed because the Motor Vehicle employees are on strike in your area. They're out everywhere you might go that can serve you. You're out of luck until they accede to coming back. There is no market place competition as a check or balance in the process.

Even worse, the employer (government) has to win a popularity contest every few years in order to "stay in business" (continue governing) and has the ability to use their position to make their constituents pay for the "bread and circuses" that are used to win this popularity contest by raising taxes once they've won the next round. Only in the case where the populace gets truly annoyed with the incumbents does it happen that the (new government) winners are left saddled with the requirement of taxing their population to pay off promises made by the losers. This is what has happened here in BC this past provincial government round.

Here in BC, the previous government (NDP) considered the public service unions to be prime supporters. In addition, the general public has typically been very averse to strikes that affect their ability to get health and other government services. The "bread and circuses" in this case meant contracts to at least some of the public sector unions that put them well ahead in wages and benefits of the public's perception of "similar" positions in the private sector. The NDP got turfed out for any number of reasons in the last election, and the Liberals got in - for their first ever term of office as majority in BC (at least in this particular incarnation - many look like the previous Social Credit, but that's a different story) and with an overwhelming majority at that! Only 2 of the previous incumbent NDP were left!

The fact is that the Liberals see it as their mandate to redress some of the inequities that have gone before. They've gotten the government out of a number of areas, and are standing firm with respect to at least some of the former government's bread and circuses excesses. This has severely annoyed the public sector employees and they have decided to do what they've always done when presented with the least little resistance to their demands; strike and bring the public's business to a halt. Not only are they doing this in the one area (health care) that is out of contract, they have brought in their cronies in all the other public sector areas to totally bring BC to a halt.

Where is the alternative for me as a citizen to do my business (with government) as I can when a private-sector union strikes?

Where are the checks and balances that bring union demands back to reality?
There are none - and that has to change.

It has to change that public employees can hold government and the taxpayer to ransom simply because the unions figure the government can pay any amount for the privilege of having an employee show up for as little time as possible under some of the most bizarre working rules imaginable. The government has no competition and the public must use, and pay for, whatever the unions got governments in their self-interested way (remember - the public hates strikes and elected representatives don't have to make a profit) to accede to at any time in the past. And every contract ratchets up the criteria for another sector's union to follow; shorter work week, better benefits, higher wages, different working conditions, travel time, education allowances, professional development, all sorts of things - and every union trying to out-do the other in some respect with no regard for the consequences to the public who are ultimately footing the bill.

Over time, with different governments every few years, the unions can get almost anything they ask for in one sector for some seemingly rational reason. Then the ratcheting proceeds as each successive public-sector contract comes up for renewal and the one concession turns into a blizzard of changes across the board. And it is all done with the threat of strike held over the government's head - the ultimate labour weapon being used as a siege gun to swat a gnat; because their is no alternative available to the government - at least so far.
So... what alternatives might there be?

The provincial Liberals have already floated one - remove the right to strike - at least from "critical health-care services." Other alternatives exist as well, including "right to work" legislation where employees are not required to join a union (but in many cases still have to pay union dues to remove the immediate financial incentive to not joining) and unions are not allowed to pressure employees not to cross picket lines. There are others too but let's look at these two options.

Disallow strikes

Until there is a large-scale private-sector health industry (again a topic for another rant, er article), telling government employees that they "can always quit" if they don't like working for government seems not really to be an option. Government workers in many cases have special training (some of it at government expense) or are skilled in something that only the government does, like primary health care here in Canada where private health care is not allowed. A government employee who doesn't like their working conditions or pay has few options if they want to continue in their career except maybe leave the country, as the nurses and doctors have threatened to do (and won their point with the Liberals I might add, as indicated by their recent wage increases under this government.)

On the other hand, I'm of the opinion that the fact that someone has limited their employment options to a government position is their problem, not mine (or other taxpayers.) Lots of people in the private sector have completely changed career paths over their lifetimes - some of us several times. I even know some former government employees who have done it. There is absolutely no reason why government employees shouldn't have the opportunity and incentive to do the same. If it takes making strikes illegal in the public sector, then so be it. Something has to fix the broken marketplace there and having directly competing governments doesn't seem to be practical.

If health-care workers have their right to strike removed, they'll feel picked upon and of course the rest of the public service will rally around them (as they are doing today) to try to force the government to rescind the action. Again, the governement, and through them the public, are held to ransom. Is there maybe some reason to extend a strike ban to them all?

OK... now we get to Richard's basic opinion of government and what its role is in life...

Governments must do for their constituents that which is critical to the continued existence of the constituency, and which is not generally in the best interests of the individual constituents to do for themselves.

In essence, this is an outfall of the "Tragedy of the commons," and again is a topic for another article and likely more in the future.

The key word in the above is critical. If something isn't critical, it is my opinion that the government shouldn't do it, they should encourage the private sector to do it and/or contract it out. At worst they should regulate it and inspect it. On the other hand, if the government deems something so critical that only government can do it, then it is critical enough that those who are employed to do it must be banned from anything that would stop it from being done - i.e. striking.

You don't see the military being able to strike because soldiers are on the bread line due to inadequate pay do you? (Again another topic) Of course not! The military is (at least somewhat) critical to the continued existence of Canada. Soldiers can quit - or not sign up in the first place (we'll also deal with the draft in another article;) so too should be the lot of police, fire, health and other infrastructure government workers. Anyone whose withdrawal of services wouldn't directly affect the populace should simply not be a government employee in the first place.

So I'm all in favour of removing public-sector workers' right to strike - all of them.

Right to Work

If the right to strike isn't removed, then the right to work outside of the union movement should be allowed, along with the right to work without prejudice or reprisal if the union and its members decide that they do want to strike. I'm in favour of this being extended to the private sector as well if someone thinks that the public sector employees are being picked on.

The free market works fine in setting wage and benefit ranges now that the working conditions are legislated and monitored by agencies such as Workers Compensation. I know a couple working as store managers in the fast food industry who are having problems getting people to work for them at minimum wage. I've told them that their employer needs to increase the starting wage and set reasonable pay increase steps if they want to have a stable work force. Otherwise they'll continue to get people for a short time, train them, and lose them to the competition or some other job. The free market rules.

Yes, if there are lots of unemployed, people will stay in low paying jobs longer, but they'll leave just as soon as they can when things get better.

If an employer is unenlightened enough that this turnover is ok, then they're within their rights to continue. If at some time a union gets into the business, is there any reason that the union should be able to hold the employer to ransom when there are people willing to work for less than the union has negotiated? I don't think so. There are good times and bad times, and the union gets their increases when the good times make labour tight - they should realize that it cuts both ways so that things have to give if labour is freely available.

And in many cases, people willing to do the jobs that many government workers have are readily available. The contractors bidding on and winning the jobs the unions are complaining about being contracted out don't seem to have problems filling the positions at lower wage and benefit levels. That tells me that the people who used to do them need to upgrade their skills and do something else if they want to get a job at their previous wage/benefit levels. They need to be truly indispensable instead of a generic commodity. Just being a government worker does not mean they are indispensable. The doctors and nurses understood this - and had already voted with their feet by leaving BC when the levels of compensation fell below what they could get elsewhere. The government had to scramble to get them to stay - by raising their wages among other things. They didn't have to strike as a unit.

Maybe I'm a bit too radical for some people - but somewhere between the current situation and a completely free market lies an answer that both the capitalists and the unions can live with. The pendulum must swing back towards capitalism. In the mean time, I'm firmly of the opinion that the current BC provincial government is at least close to the right track for this time of our lives. We have to push the pendulum away from the ability of unions to ransom the public. Along the way I believe we also have to take a hard look at what it is that governments, and hence government employees, do. This will mean that many current government employees will find themselves no longer working for government and I for one think this will be a good thing. The protests today (May 3, 2004) make it just that much clearer that this is the way we must go.

We are in a completely different world from when my father was a civil servant. Back then (the '50s and '60s) the typical government worker got less pay than equivalent private sector but had better job security. Between then and now, the position has reversed - the public sector has better wages and benefits than private, plus enjoys better job security. Now, the Liberals (and hopefully other governments will follow) have said in effect "pick one - job security or higher (than market) wages - but not both."

We are also in a world where instead of being in the same job for 20+ years, many people will change jobs and careers several times (every 3-5 years in many cases) in their lifetime and will be constantly learning new skills and working new occupations. We would be very remiss if we were to shelter the public employee from such a rich and invigorating experience.

Let them find new jobs.


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