The strike as kitsch

Worth A Look, Workplace, Frontier Centre

In other news … thousands of public school teachers across British Columbia are out on strike. They are striking in defiance of the law, as both the B.C. Labour Relations Board and the B.C. Supreme Court have ruled. Yet, even in the face of fines of as much as $150,000 per day, the teachers’ union vows to stay out, leaving more than 600,000 students in the lurch.

As I say, what else is new? It’s a big story, and yet it isn’t: Teachers are always out on strike somewhere, illegally or otherwise — if not in B.C., then in Ontario, or Quebec or some other locale. Teachers’ strikes have become as much a part of the school year as prom night. That is, in the public school system that’s true. But you rarely hear about a strike by private school teachers, do you?

If it’s not teachers, it’s health care providers. Or civil servants. Or university professors. Or CBC broadcasters. The common denominator in every case is the public sector. Strikes, once common across the economy, have become disproportionately a public sector phenomenon. Public employees account for 18% of the workforce, but half or more of all days lost to strikes in a typical year.

There’s a simple enough explanation for this: Unions themselves are disproportionately a public sector phenomenon. Today, fewer than one in five private sector workers in Canada belong to a union. Three out of four public employees do.

And why is that? One word: competition. Strikes are rare wherever competition from rival providers makes such interruptions too costly, for management and labour alike. In the private sector, that is increasingly the case; the more competitive the industry, the less the incidence of either unions or strikes. But in the public sector, especially where it enjoys a monopoly or near-monopoly, unions are still a force, and the strike remains the weapon of choice.

Of course, unions would tell you that monopoly cuts both ways: Monopoly providers are also monopoly employers. You don’t like your job, you go across the street. A health care worker doesn’t like her pay or working conditions, what does she do? The strike is the only weapon she has. Hence, the characteristic scene of modern-day industrial relations: the public beset by its employees, deprived of essential services for weeks on end.

A little competition, then, letting the air in on musty state monopolies, would seem the proper remedy — for both sides. The public would have more choice of providers; workers would have more choice of employers. Unions would have less leverage in the event of a strike, but less need to call one. Yet that option seems to find little favour with public-sector union leaders. They’d rather wring as much as they can out of their existing monopoly than risk all in a competitive market.

One reason for this propensity to strike may be that it works: Politicians are notoriously easy to roll. As the monopoly purchaser of health care, for example, government was supposed to be the ideal instrument for keeping provider salaries under control. Instead, successive governments "wrestled the doctors to the ceiling," rather than risk being blamed for a strike. Or it may simply be part of the culture of the public sector, reflecting its peculiar customs and belief systems. Government work, it seems, attracts a certain kind of person: one whose idea of how to get ahead is to periodically down tools for a month or two. For many people, the chance that they might be forced out on strike at unpredictable intervals would strongly incline them against taking a job in the public sector. For others, it’s a plus.

It is an odd way of going about things, when you think about it: bellowing out a list of demands, then announcing you will hold your breath until they are satisfied. Most disputes are not settled this way. Husbands and wives when they divorce do not typically picket each other’s apartments. Shoppers, finding the prices too high at their local supermarket, do not walk around in circles yelling "hey hey, ho ho, Shop’n’Save has got to go."

The whole business has a strangely antiquated, cloth-cap feel to it. The strike evolved as the natural strategy of unskilled mass labour, at a time when workers were many in number but few in rights. Now it’s the tool of television producers and tenured professors. Yet they wave their banners and chant their slogans — No Justice! No Peace! — for all the world as if they were migrant farm workers from Oklahoma. It’s all just a little bit kitsch.

The present dispute was triggered when the B.C. government imposed a two-year wage freeze on teachers. That’s unpleasant, no doubt, though people put up with much worse in other lines of work. The difference is that teachers feel entitled to shut down the province’s schools to make their point — even in defiance of the law. The teachers’ leader calls it civil disobedience, and compares the union’s situation with that of the suffragettes.

It’s not that they’re particularly hard done by (at $65,000 per, B.C.’s teachers are among the highest paid in the federation). It’s just what they do. It’s how they have learned to behave. I doubt it occurs to them that everyone else does not do the same.

© National Post 2005