Unions are an essential factor in keeping our economy healthy. Capitalists and workers are inseparable partners in producing wealth. Capitalists provided the means. Workers provide the muscle. Collective bargaining and the ability to strike embodied in unions protect the workers’ position as partners in whatever the industry is. Prior to unions, capitalists as a group proved very willing to treat workers as an expendable resource, mistreating and exploiting them to the enrichment of individual capitalists but the detriment of the common economy. Unions, of course, are composed of individuals with strengths, weaknesses and vices. Some unions overreach. Some are abusive. Some are more detrimental to their industry and the economy than they are beneficial to their members. When I was seventeen and working for Kentucky Fried Chicken, I was a member of the American Steelworkers Union because their union had bought our union. How does that make sense? When the steelworks went on strike, they put a picket line around the KFC where I worked. Other than that humorous example, I won’t name any examples of bad unions. That’s not this week’s topic. I want to talk about public service unions.
The union model has been so effective strengthening our economy and our society that we have applied it over and over, even to areas where it begins to break down such as public service. When steelworkers go on strike, the steel mill owner loses money. It is to his advantage to sit down with the workers and hammer out a deal. Similarly, when the workers are on strike, they aren’t getting paid (except out of a limited strike fund maintained by the union) so it is to their advantage to sit down with the owner and hammer out a deal. Public service workers to not directly produce wealth. They provide a service to the public. Some of these services are so critical we can’t do without them for even one day. Thus police, fire fighters, paramedics, hospital workers, and some infrastructure workers are branded essential services and forbidden to strike. I agree. I wouldn’t want my local police or fire department to go on strike. Essential service workers can still strike by not drawing pay and refusing to wear their uniforms, but they still have to provide the service. They rely on shame to bring the government to the bargaining table. Governments do not always respond to shame. The BC Paramedics went on strike and stopped wearing their uniforms. The government got a court ruling that wearing uniforms on duty was a public safety issue. The paramedics put their uniforms back on and put “ON STRIKE” decals on their ambulances. The government told them they weren’t allowed to do that because they just weren’t, and the government was going to pass a law forbidding it. The strength of unions is in the power to strike. When that power is taken away, the strength of unions is broken.
Specifically, the strength of unions is in the power of strikes to disrupt the production of wealth. If the workers do not produce wealth for the owner (government), the strength of unions is broken even if the right to strike remains. BC teachers have been working to rule since September. They have been doing everything required by their contracts with the government but have been withholding volunteer service that allows extra-curricular activities. The teachers are getting paid. Students are getting the required education. Students and parents are annoyed by the lack of optional services we all take for granted as part of the school package. Teachers and the government have been the target of pressure from an annoyed public to sort things out and get back to normal. In six months nothing has happened to resolve the dispute. The government is not inconvenienced in the least by the job action. There have been a few nasty editorials, but the BC Government is used to people saying bad things about them—and the teachers have been catching flak, too.
A three-day walkout is imminent; a mini-strike. What happens if the teachers do go on strike? The teachers stop getting paid. They will receive a portion of their usual pay from a union strike fund in exchange for serving time on the picket line. This fund is not limitless. Students will have nowhere to go during the day. Many families will be disrupted as a working parent will either have to stay home or pay for care. People will yell and scream at the government and the teachers. The government will save baskets of money by not having to pay the teachers or heat or light the schools and will be handed the lovely talking point, “The teachers say they value education, but they’ve walked out of the classroom. We didn’t close the schools.” The power of the strike is negated. The strength of unions is broken.
By protecting workers from exploitative employers, unions strengthen our economy and society. The strength of unions is founded in the power of strikes to disrupt the production of wealth. When there is no production of wealth to disrupt, the power of the strike is negated and the strength of unions fails. A strong society needs lots of happy, healthy, competent, and prosperous teachers, policemen, fire fighters, paramedics, nurses, and other public service employees. Some bright spark needs to come up with a mechanism that allows these essential members of our community to make an irrefutable claim to partnership with the government employer the same way the union strike enabled wealth producing workers to claim their rightful partnership with capitalists.
Get to it.