CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition did a segment this past weekend on the future of strikes. The question posed by host Michael Enright was whether the strike has past its due date and is on its way out as an economic tool for workers trying to bargain a better deal at work. Here is the webpage, where you can find this written introduction to the segment:
In the bad old days of the early trade union movement there were men and women who went to jail fighting for the right to strike.
Or were beaten. Or were killed.
But that was way back then.
Pretty much everybody these days believes union members have a right to withdraw their labor to improve their economic lives.
But when employees are dealing with a government things are different.
A government can order you back to work. It can even order you back to work before you’ve stopped working—as it did this week with Air Canada flight attendants.
Which raises an interesting question—-has the strike, as a bargaining tool, lost its effectiveness?
Is it or should it be a thing of the past?
In Hour One this morning, the future of the strike—Does it have one?
You can listen to the segment here. Enright interviews Professor Brian Langille, our Labour Law professor friend from the University of Toronto, and Nancy Riche, who is the former executive at the Canadian Labour Congress . The actual interview starts at about the 10 minute mark, you can drag the white cursor forward to that point if you want to skip to the strike segment.
The impetus for the segment was last week’s unusual announcement by the Federal Tories that they would pass back to work legislation the second that Air Canada’s flight attendants were to strike. The government said basically that employees of a private, for-profit corporation, in a competitive, non-essential industry have no right to strike. The government is acting on behalf of Air Canada in employment bargaining. This is not how things usually work in democracies–China maybe–but not democracies.
Professor Brian Langille
Brian makes the point every worker in Canada, union and nonunion, have a right to try and bargain better conditions of employment, and to refuse to work if they do not like what is being offered. He asks the listeners to consider how bizarre it would seem if the Minister of Labour called you at home and told you that you can’t attempt to bargain your conditions of employment anymore, and that you must go to work, even if you do not like what the employer is offering. Would that seem off-base to you? Brian says that this is exactly what the Minister of Labour told Air Canada employees last week.
And Brian goes further. He says that all Canadians should be concerned about a government that interferes in bargaining in this way. If employers know that the government will interject anytime workers try to strike to bargain a better deal, then employers will have little incentive to bargain. That’s not a good thing. Finally, Brian says that the government is going to far, and inviting a Charter challenge that has a very good chance of succeeding in Brian’s view. He believes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects not only a right to collective bargaining, but also a right to strike. By being so heavy-handed, by legislating private sectors back to work without any evidence of harm to the public, the government is asking to be reined in by the Supreme Court.
Nancy Riche makes a point that most industrial relations people recognize: if a government tries to ban strikes, it will fail. We know that from history. If workers are unhappy and feel they have no effective voice, they will act out. They will still strike, they will be disruptive, workplace relations will deteriorate, not improve under such a regime. Strikes are rare, but the threat of a strike is a very important part of the economic system, according to Riche.
The final word from both of speakers is that the strike will never disappear, and attempts to ban them will ultimately fail.
Listen to the discussion. Do you agree or disagree with the views expressed?