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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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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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