The parking lots are full again, and the line at the Tim Hortons is again down the hall at the TEL Building. The strike is obviously over. I don’t intend to do a full analysis of the bargaining strategies and outcomes. In part, it is way to early to do that — we will need to see what happens at arbitration and then in the years to come to see whether whether the strike benefited either the union or York.
However, I would like to address one aspect of the strike that is interesting from a historical perspective. It relates to the use of publicity and public pressure as a tool for influencing collective bargaining.
Much of our existing labour law model today can be traced back to MacKenzie King. King strongly believed that “public opinion” could be harnessed in labour disputes to pressure unions and employers to be reasonable and find a solution that would not lead to strikes that harm the public. In his book Industry and Humanity, King wrote:
.. I have faith in the power of Public Opinion to remove any injustice and to redress any wrong. There is a class of evils which publicity is more effective to remove than penalty. Most industrial wrongs belong to this class.”
Therefore, in an early, influential piece of labour legislation, the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act (1907), King included a requirement (section 28) for a government conciliation board to meet with the parties and then prepare a summary of their bargaining positions, with recommendation for how the dispute should be settled. That report would then be sent to all of the newspapers, with the idea that the press would review the parties’ positions, write damaging stories about the party that was being unreasonable, and then the wrath of public opinion would come down with force, pressuring the parties to settle the dispute.
The requirement for mandatory government conciliation prior to a strike is still part of our model in Ontario, and a cociliation report is still required to be filed with the Minister of Labour. But King’s belief that public opinion would influence the outcomes of collective bargaining has largely faded from legislative model.
Which brings me to the York Strike. There has probably been few strikes with more “coverage” than this strike. By that I mean, not just media coverage, but blog and website coverage. The positions of the parties have been dissected on student blogs, professor, and parent blogs, on the websites of the parties, and in the many comment sections of on-line newspaper stories. My sense is that the vast majority of ‘public opinion’ favoured York’s position, since the union and its members were often portrayed as selfish and greedy, although many thoughtful writers did manage to explain and identify that the government’s funding of universities and the York administration in particular are in large measure responsible for the conditions that led to this dispute. On that last point, see this recent commentary by two senior York faculty.
Here’s the question for discussion. Did the mass of internet coverage of this strike–including blogs, websites, Facebook groups, and other electronic coverage–make any difference at all in this strike?
It would be impossible to conclude, I think, that it shortened the strike, as MacKenzie King might have predicted. But do you think it hardened the positions of the strikers or the Employer? Do you think, since the weight of public opinion appeared to favour York, that it gave the employer the courage to simply wait for back to work legislation?
These are interesting questions, and I’d like to hear what you think. Comments welcome and encouraged.