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Job Actions and a little thinking

Solidarity, cuz the union keeps us strong

VANCOUVER ISLAND BC – Today is supposed to be JJ’s first day of kindergarten.

I have been eagerly anticipating the day after Labour Day for several reasons. JJ has spent the first half of the summer commuting with me to the Cancer Centre in Victoria for my daily radiation treatments, and the second half hanging around the house, spending far too much time playing electronic games and surfing the kids’ areas on the Internet while I recover. Today was supposed to be the day that all comes to an end. New friends, lots of socialised activity, and the beginning of his journey through academia.

It was supposed to be something of a new beginning for me as well. Not having been well enough to work for about a year now, my cancer journey has arrived at a point where we know there is some microscopic malignancy somewhere, but we must wait and watch until it is detectable. I am feeling the return of some minimal quotient of energy, so I was looking forward to sitting down at the keyboard and pounding out a few articles to send to my most reliable editors, to outline a new book, and to have a few hours every day during which I am not immediately responsible for a very curious and active five-year-old.

It was not to be, however; the British Columbia teachers union is on strike and the government has locked them out.cupe

This presents a bit of a challenge to me, both in practical terms (what to do about JJ) and in intellectual terms (I am and always have been a union supporter). The practical aspects are only logistical issues and not very interesting…I can work around them. The intellectual aspects are the ones that have me at the keyboard while JJ is watching SpongeBob Squarepants.

I have always maintained that to be as objective as possible in a contentious issue, it is best if proponents of either side of the dispute have no personal stake in it. Objectivity is best obtained if the commentators ain’t got a dog in the fight. However, in the absence of an arm’s length objectivity, disclosure is the next best way for a commentator to start. In this instance, I have a dog in the fight. So there you have it. In labour disputes, my default position is pro organised labour. And I have a little boy who is sad because he can’t start kindergarten as promised all summer. In this instance however, I am inclined to fault the teachers’ union to some degree.

The management–labour relationship is best seen as a straightforward buyer–seller relationship. Management is buying and labour is selling labour. A strike is nothing more than the seller refusing to sell his commodity, labour, at a price management wants to pay. By withholding labour, the seller causes financial harm to management by ensuring that the product being manufactured by labour and sold for management’s profit is unavailable; labour stops making widgets and management has no widgets to sell. Management suffers a financial loss (as does labour) and he who blinks first loses and a new contract is signed and business resumes as usual.

That nutshell description of the archetypal labour dispute is all well and good and my Marxist economics professor would be proud that I grasped it so clearly. It doesn’t however cover the teacher’s strike now closing schools in British Columbia.

The problem is that management is, in this case, government. And government has no widgets to sell so there is no financial damage being done to management by the teachers withholding their labour. On the contrary, the strike is a bit of a windfall; there will be no disbursements from the education budget until the teachers blink and go back to work. In fact, such a savings is the government experiencing that it is buying support from the public by offering to pay the parents $40.00 per day per child for as long as they are affected by the strike.

This, while welcome to a parent like me, is a blatant ploy to curry favour with the public. The forty dollars will pay for some daycare for the children who have no school to attend, thus easing a bit of the burden for parents who have work to go to. Meanwhile the teachers are doing their level best to recruit parents to join their job action and to write letters to editors and members of the legislature. The tug-of-war for the hearts and minds of the parents is a sure indicator that this job action hasn’t got any body by the balls – except maybe the teachers themselves, since their strike fund won’t last for much longer.

This whole notion of a strike has the idea of job actions skewed. The withholding of labour is supposed to be felt by the people who control the purse strings, not the customers. Particularly if you’re trying to get the customers to support your action.

A far more effective job action on the part of the teachers would have been not to strike in the classic picket line and cardboard sign manner, but rather to approach the situation with a little recognition of the parts the various stakeholders have to play. Perhaps the teachers could have stayed on the job (and payroll) but just give the students free time all day. Send them off to the playground, to the library or gym. They could sit at their desks reading, colouring, drawing, or texting their friends. This would inevitably result in a lockout and the teachers would be the victims and not the aggressors; an ideal spot to be in when binding arbitration is brought in. The parents would be considerably more sympathetic as the kids would still be at school during the work day and the parents would endure considerably less upheaval.

As it stands, the teachers are striking primarily for smaller class sizes and additional help for special needs children. And yet the strike is causing massive inconvenience to their natural allies in the dispute: the parents. Ironically, the real villain in the piece, is the government that denigrates the importance of education and that squanders money on one boondoggle after another. Nevertheless, believing the parents (voters) to be on their side, that government remains tightfisted when it comes to our most important resource – our children – and are winning the hearts and minds of the poor beleaguered parents.
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So, teachers, I’m with you. I won’t cross your picket line, and I’ll even stand with a picket out of solidarity. But, hey. You’re smart guys and girls, aren’t you? Try to think job actions through before you walk off next time, will you?

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