Wednesday, July 4, 2001
The Chronicle Herald

Law, strikes and the public interest
By Brian Lee Crowley

SHOULD there be strikes in essential public services? Many people are aghast at the way the provincial government slammed the door on the health care workers as they prepared to strike, and yet the idea of even a potential breakdown in the delivery of vital health care services scares many. What’s the right thing to do?

There are good arguments on both sides of the right-to-strike question for public sector workers, especially those who provide services essential to public health and safety. The ability to withdraw your labour if you are dissatisfied with your pay and working conditions is pretty important. Not only is it a good bargaining chip, but your labour belongs to you and you shouldn’t be forced to sell it, except on conditions you find acceptable.

On the other hand, labour relations in the public and the private sectors are different by their nature. A private sector employer must live within some very tangible constraints. General Motors does not set the price of cars, and therefore is not free to pay its workers whatever it pleases, passing on those costs to the buying public. Employers whose wage bill gets out of hand are punished by investors and customers.

Most importantly, a failure to remain competitive means that the company goes out of business. And if a car manufacturer or a restaurant or a software company closes its doors, there are lots of other companies supplying those goods to consumers. Employees know that their jobs and wages hinge on their employer’s ability to compete.

Not so in the public sector. Politicians don’t spend their own money; they spend yours and mine, which makes them a little less careful with it than they might be. The government cannot go bankrupt. Most governments’ time horizon is no further than the next election. So, many times labour peace has been bought in the public sector with over-generous pay settlements, the bill falling due after the next election.

And often the government is the sole supplier of public goods. In health care, if public employees strike, and there is a failure to maintain essential services, there is not some other provider you can turn to. The public sector unions have the ability to bring the whole system to a halt in a way that is virtually unknown in the private sector.

This lack of hard budget constraints on governments, plus the bargaining power conferred on public sector unions by their ability to shut down whole vital services, helps to explain why many places, including the U.K. and the U.S., severely restrict the strikes in the public sector.

There is merit in this, but it must be done fairly. To restrict the excessive bargaining power of public sector unions, public sector workers must not be left at the whim of whatever the government feels like paying. A crucial piece of the puzzle, then, is some kind of wage comparability board, at arm’s length from both government and the unions. This body’s job would be to monitor wages for comparable workers in the private sector. In exchange for workers losing the right to strike, governments have to lose the possibility of setting their wages unilaterally. A determination by the wage board of an appropriate rate of pay for, say, nurses should be binding.

The very worst possible policy is precisely the one that the government is following now. That policy is basically to recognize and enshrine in legislation the right to strike for public sector unions, and then to yank that right whenever it proves inconvenient. This is wrong in principle and it is counter-productive.

It’s wrong in principle because the government’s word should count for something. It has made legislative and contractual promises to its workers that their wages and working conditions shall be set by collective bargaining, and that workers possess the right to withdraw their labour as part of those negotiations. Having made these promises, it is wrong for the government not even to try to make the process work.

And the government’s behaviour is counter-productive because it poisons the public sector workplace, makes public employees feel mistrustful and devalued, and guarantees that they will discount any promises governments may make about their behaviour in the future. The quality of public services will inevitably suffer.

If the government wants to restrict the right to strike of public sector employees, there are sound reasons for doing so. But it should do so as a part of a formal review of labour relations in the field, and state its policy in legislation that the government then applies in all circumstances, with appropriate safeguards for the rights of workers and the public interest. It shouldn’t just change the rules in the middle of the game, or it is guilty of the kind of contempt for the law that it rightly deplores in workers who defy labour legislation.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: BrianLeeCrowley@aims.ca