Postal workers are still on strike but legislation has been tabled to force them back to work.
Reactions to the strikes have been mixed. For the first week, Canadian media debated the relevance of the post in the age of email. Man-on-the-street interviews with busy urbanites revealed that mail service to remote Canadian was inessential. Small retailers were nervous about their mail order business, and charities wrung their hands about grant cheques, but otherwise the public was unaffected, or perhaps just uninterested.
There was a time when a postal strike would cripple the national economy. Now with private courier companies and countless electronic options, Canada Post is no longer felt to be an essential service. Because of the public ambivalence toward the strikes, many suspect that Canada Post locked out its employees in order to force back-to-work legislation.
Even if this suspicion is accurate, it is not wise. When bargaining talks break down, in this case over changes to pensions for new hires, wages, and working conditions, a strike raises the stakes. It puts pressure on management to settle faster. But legislating a employees back to work means neither side gets the terms they want. When Mom intervenes, no one gets to play with the ball.
Worse is the accusation that back-to-work legislation undermines the employees right to strike. In its most idealistic form, this right is about demanding safe working conditions, fair living wages and reasonable job security. But the reality is messier. The negotiating parties are not only seeking to meet an objective standard for conditions and wages--government regulations take care of that. In reality, they are both seeking to get the better of the other party and at the same time, perversely, agree.
Assuming that Canada Post is not in violation of government regulations regarding work safety, wages and benefits, the workers are striking in order to leverage their bargaining position. If we say that they are defending their right to strike, then we must mean that they are defending their right to bargain as powerfully as possible.
Legislating workers back to their posts diminishes the worker’s bargaining power. But not in favour of the other side of the negotiating table. While the workers lose their trump card, they don’t lose it to their opponent. When employees are legislated back to work, both parties lose their independent bargaining power.
The problem with this argument is that after legislation is passed, the employees are working without a collective agreement and the company is restoring its profit margin. It does seem as though one side, the owners, is gaining.
The larger fear is that back-to-work legislation will have long-term consequences for all Canadian unions. The more it seems acceptable that workers can be forced not to strike, the more it seems plausible that a right to strike is an outmoded idea, just a vestige of early industrialism. From the prospective of a growing number of Canadians, striking is about securing a minimum standard for workers, not ensuring a better life or a comfortable retirement.
When we ask ourselves if this is a right worth defending in the long run, we have to ask ourselves how high or low we want that standard set.