I recently wrote a piece on organised labour that drew a lot of email. A common objection to labour unions in today’s world was that when public service employees strike, the public who relies on those services is impacted; many of my correspondents expressed the view that there should be no right to strike among public service employees, and some, by extension, took it to the point that they believed that their unions therefore should be illegal. The following piece discusses those concerns.
As an aside, I would like to ask my readers to communicate their discussion points and comments using the comment forum beneath each article. While I enjoy getting your emails, I can’t always answer each one individually, and it provides for a much broader discussion if we use the public forum designed for that purpose.
Collective bargaining, essential services, and strikes
VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – While organised labour is often seen as the antithesis of capitalism, a case can be made for trade unions actually being a logical expression of capitalism among those whose assets are less tangible than say, those of a factory owner. Contrary to strict Marxist doctrine, it is possible to understand the relationship between labour and management as one between equals in an exchange of goods and services for mutual profit.
What needs to be understood is that a worker, or any employee of management, is simply engaged in a transaction that involves the exchange of his asset – his labour – for money, which he can then exchange for goods and services. Looked at in this way, the relationship is a straight expression of simple capitalism. One can even take the analogy further and express it in Marxist terms: in this instance, it is the worker who has control of the means of production – his mind and body – and that access puts him in charge of the production; he chooses when to produce, how much to produce, and whether to cease production.
But a capitalist in today’s economy cannot go it alone; by and large individual capitalists pool their resources and form an artificial entity to act on their behalf: a corporation. The corporation is owned by its shareholders who are insulated from personal liability, but who share proportionally in any profits. This increases the power of their capital, distributes the risk, and provides for a higher rate of return on their investment when they exchange their product in the marketplace.
In a like manner, when a person whose only asset is his labour – that’s most of us – chooses to join others and form an entity that can support his efforts, share risk, and increase his bargaining power in the marketplace, that entity is what we call a union. The union deals with the company and individuals deal with individuals; they make contracts, and they engage in in transactions. The companies and individuals sell the products that are their stock in trade and the unions and individuals sell their labour to manufacture those products or provide those services.
This brings us to the crucial point. When a corporation offers its products for sale and the customer doesn’t like the price asked, the corporation simply holds onto the product and doesn’t do the deal. Of course the company foregoes any profit, but the company has every right to refuse to sell its product for less than it considers it to be worth. And this is exactly what a worker or a union of workers does. A worker may sell his labour, his skills, or his talent; he may withhold them if the price isn’t right.
The corporation has the government to protect its rights; if the customer decides to purchase cheaper foreign products, the government steps in and places import tariffs on the competition. The government however, doesn’t protect unions in this way, however; unions have to protect themselves from unfair underpriced competition by demanding that their picket lines be respected. That’s necessary because all a worker has to negotiate with his labour; withholding that labour is the final resort in any dispute over its value.
With that as the framework, it’s necessary to consider the right of workers to withhold their labour when that labour does more than simply produce a product or provide a service that makes a profit for their employer. The purpose of the ultimate collective labour action – the strike – is to deny the company the benefit of the workers’ labour and cause the corporate profits to suffer; when a public service employee such as a police officer, firefighter, teacher, or mail carrier strikes, goes the argument, it is not the employer or his profits who feels the pressure, it is the public who relies on those services who feels the pinch. This is more particularly the case when the service being interrupted is considered an essential one.
If firefighters or police officers withdraw their services the consequences to the public can be catastrophic; this is unreasonable, it amounts to holding the public hostage to the demands of labour, goes the argument. And there is a great deal of truth in that argument. But before we look at ways to resolve the dilemma, let us consider the position of the worker.
The worker, as we have already established, comes to the table with a single asset with which to negotiate: his labour. If all else fails and the two parties cannot come to terms, the worker has nothing left but to threaten, and finally to withhold his labour. It is the only weapon available in a bitter dispute with a much stronger and perhaps completely recalcitrant employer. Because a striking worker draws no salary, the system of organised job action discourages the use of strikes except as a very last resort.
While the consequences of shutting down a fire department or police service would undeniably be dire, is it really to fair to say, in a democracy, that the public is merely an innocent bystander and that any negative impact on the people is unfair collateral damage? Certainly it’s true that in this case management doesn’t suffer because profits are reduced by withdrawal of labour; but as the public is not only the beneficiary of the services provided, but ultimately the employer as well, surely it is the public who must be persuaded by a job action. Ultimately, in a democratic environment, it is pressure from the public to come to terms that will have an effect on management. There being no profit motive, public demands have to substitute. There is nothing fundamentally unfair about putting pressure on the public to back up public service union demands.
Nevertheless, realistically we must recognise that in our modern society, some services are simply indispensable. While we may be profoundly inconvenienced by an interruption of garbage removal services, or a teachers’ job action, or a stoppage of postal services, people can and probably will die if the police departments are shut down, if emergency medical services are interrupted, or if the fire department doesn’t respond to calls. Since these workers are, by and large, caring and dedicated to their professions, a strike would necessarily only occur in the most extreme circumstances and only once every other attempt to come to terms has failed.
However, the public has a right to be protected; they pay for it and it is an explicit part of the social contract. So somehow the public’s right to protection and the worker’s right to sell his labour for a fair price have to be balanced. And, like in every other compromise, both parties will inevitably feel as though they are giving up the most.
Perhaps the only solution to this impasse is for a system of binding arbitration to be agreed upon and accepted by any new workers as a condition of employment. This simply means that in the event of an insurmountable labour dispute, a party acceptable to both sides is appointed to attempt to negotiate a settlement; and, in the event that such negotiations fail, to arbitrate by imposing a set of conditions that must be adhered to by both sides. (The simplest way to achieve such binding arbitration is, as a last resort, for the arbitrator to ask both sides to present their best offer in writing. The arbitrator must then choose one of the two offered solutions without modification and impose it upon the disputants; this ensures that both sides genuinely present their very best and most reasonable offer.) If any worker is dissatisfied with the arbitrator’s decision, he or she is free to resign, and management is free to replace him or her.
There are of course some problems with this kind of arbitration, not the least of which is the selection of an arbitrator suitable to both parties; this can often be as difficult to negotiate as the terms of a contract. One of the sticking points will be that an arbitrator must on the one hand recognise that the union enters the negotiation having already conceded a very important point – the right to strike – and on the other hand must be neutral. Nevertheless, this can be done and it serves as some level of vigilance over both the safety of the public and the human rights of the workers. If all sides of the triangle bargain in good faith and make every reasonable attempt to empathise with the position of the others, public service labour disputes should be easier to resolve than commercial ones.
In the absence of a profit motive and with all stakeholders realising that the public is being served by the department in question as well as the union workers, and that the public is footing the bill for those services, and that the workers and management are also part of the public, a resolution can be found. The bottom line is that those services must not be terminated, and the public who uses them must pay for them. It’s simply a question of finding the best formula to accomplish this. But denying either side the right to bargain honestly or to require that either side be unfairly hamstrung in negotiations will only result in those vital jobs being sought only by workers of lower calibre; something nobody wants.