In Canada, we’ve been witnessing a watering down of the meaning of “essential service” for some time. Now a Lithuanian Court has taken this trend to ridiculous new lengths, ruling that Carlsberg’s beer-makers are “vitally essential” and therefore that they cannot exercise the legal right to strike available to non-essential workers.
This is what can happen when the “right to strike” is treated as a joke by governments. Canadian governments know all about that. Here, we treat the people who change the recycling bags on subway platforms, teaching assistants, and airline ticket agents as “essential”. Are we really that far from declaring alcohol makers “essential” too?
The world’s leading institution on the right to strike is the International Labour Organization, which is comprised of representatives of government, employers, and workers’s organizations. This tri-partite structure gives the ILO a heightened credibility. However, in recent years, many democratic governments, including Canada’s, have been routinely ignoring the ILO whenever gets in the way of their political agenda. As long as the public doesn’t support a strike, our governments feel they are justified banning them. And contemporary Canadians are unusually squeamish about any labour dispute that causes them any inconvenience whatsoever. The right not to be adversely impacted by a strike seems more important than the right to strike in Canada these days. This contrasts sharply with the idea of the ‘right to strike’ at the ILO. The ILO perceives the right to strike to be an essential and necessary component of any capitalist and democratic system, since it provides the only means for workers to apply pressure on employers to win a greater share of a firm’s wealth, and ensuring workers obtain a good share of the wealth they generate is absolutely crucial to ensuring political and economic stability and avoiding high levels of income inequality.
Therefore, according to the ILO, all workers should have a right to strike when they believe this makes sense in their circumstances. The only restrictions on the right to strike involve jobs that are “essential to protect the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population”. Michael Lynk explained the ILO’s approach to the right to strike in his affidavit to the Saskatchewan Court in the recent decision in which the “right to strike” was found to be protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The difference between the “strike as a right” view (of the ILO) and the strike as interference with the economy and of citizens (of many of our governments in Canada) is one of perspective. If you stand back and view strikes as an important means by which democratic nations can distribute wealth and allow worker expression and frustration to be channeled, then you would want to give broad protection of strikes. While individual strikes may irritate or cause economic harm to others in the short run, in the long run, strikes do not destroy economies and life goes on. The Canadian economy can survive a strike at Air Canada, Canada Post, or the TTC–as it has done before.
If you look at a more micro level, at how an individual work stoppage will temporarily impact bystanders in the short run, then you will want the government to be watching every single dispute and to be weighing the right to strike against the impact of the strike on every other person at a particular moment in time. Even though a strike at Air Canada or the TTC will not destroy the economy or lead to deaths or sickness, it will cause economic harm or irritation to March Break travellers in the short run, and therefore the strike should be banned.
I mentioned last week how the ILO found the Ontario government in violation of ILO rules about respecting the right to strike of agricultural workers. Canadian governments have also decided in recent years that the following jobs are essential: garbage collectors, teachers, teaching assistants, airline baggage handlers, airline ticket collectors, pilots, ticket collectors at a transit company, TTC mechanics and janitors. Are any of these jobs essential to protecting “life, personal safety, or health of the whole or part of the population”? Obviously not, which is why Canada is routinely the target of ILO rebukes, even being singled out a few years back for special concern for its failure to respect the rights of its people to engage in industrial action.
My own sense is that our governments have become so cavalier about restricting the right to strike whenever it suits them politically that the Supreme Court will indeed step up and recognize a right to strike in the Charter. This is what happened to usher in the Charter right to collective bargaining–the BC government’s disdain for collective bargaining as demonstrated in its willingness to completely ignore unions and complete disregard of collective agreements so disturbed the Supreme Court that they felt it necessary to intervene. There are several cases raising the right to strike winding their way up the judicial ladder (including Charter challenges against the Feds’ intervention at Canada Post and Air Canada and the Saskatchewan government’s ban on public workers’ right to strike). When the Court does finally recognize a right to strike, these governments will have themselves to blame.
What do you think? Do you support the use of strike bans by governments for workers who are not needed for the protection of health and safety?