“When the union’s inspiration through the worker’s blood shall run

There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun

Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one

But the Union makes us strong “  

           Solidarity Forever

Back in 1975, as a worker in the Vancouver Post Office, I joined 18,000 other postal workers across Canada on the picket line.  We were attempting to not only win a wage increase to keep pace with inflation, but more importantly to win protections and some control over the mechanization of our work lives. We were out from Oct 21 until Dec 2 for a total of 43 days.  It was hard times even with the strike pay. We won some unprecedented language around technological change so it ended up being worth the sacrifice of six weeks’ wages.

That experience crystalized my thinking.  As a young 23 year old, I was active politically, marching in peace demos and participating in various activities but a lot of that was abstract , not really personal.  I distrusted Post Office management and supported my union, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), but frankly I found the union meetings boring so I stopped attending.  However, once I was out on the street on strike, walking the length of the block in rain and cold, talking with my fellow workers, and watching supervisors trying to get people to cross our line, the power relations, between us as workers and them as employers, became clearer.  This was reinforced by the falsehoods uttered by the Government and the biased reporting of the press. I was there, I saw with my own eyes what had occurred yet in the paper the next day a complete distortion would be published. So I saw that in many ways it was us against them and that ‘them’ had a hell of a lot of power.  The power relation between the employer and the worker is inherently unequal and only by bargaining collectively do we have a chance of improving our lot. So basically the only real protection I had as a worker was the solidarity of my union Sisters and Brothers.

My experience is not unique.  Millions of workers around the world have learned that basic lesson. Staring down a supervisor, trying to tell an aggressive cop what the issues are as you are shoved down the street, explaining why you are on strike to the person trying to cross the picket line, and shouting with joy and relief when you have turned aside another delivery truck.  All of those are part of the schooling you get when you go on strike.

Many Canadians would say strikes and strikers are bad.  Some politicians would outlaw strikes. The media has rarely written an unbiased description of either strike actions or the issues that led to a strike.

Yet what power does a working person have in the face of an employer who refuses to pay a living wage or who cuts corners on safety spending  or whose supervisor actively harasses women workers? You might say we have the ability to negotiate and we do negotiate collective agreements.  But what if you have employers who feel they are not having a union tell them what to do or decide in the cost benefit analysis that we don’t need a carbon monoxide extractor in the fleet garage?  What about when they refuse to bargain in good faith?

The only real power any worker has is to collectively withdraw their labour, to hit the bricks.  That is why the right to strike has been recognized by the Supreme Court in a number of rulings. Justice Galligan in the Broadway Manor Nursing Home case said “Freedom of association contains a sanction that can convince an employer to recognize the worker’s representatives and bargain effectively with them. That sanction is the freedom to strike…If that sanction is removed the freedom is valueless because there is no effective means to force an employer to recognize the worker’s representatives and bargain with them.  When that happens the raison d’etre for workers to organize themselves into a union is gone. Thus I think that the removal of the freedom to strike renders the freedom to organize a hollow thing.”

Unions do not enter into negotiations to strike.  The objective is to achieve a good and effective collective agreement but if, in order to achieve that objective, we need to strike we will.  Most workers don’t like strikes because it is a loss of income and it can be quite stressful especially if the boss is using scabs or strikebreakers.  Workers are also subject to the anti-union rhetoric in the media and so can be conflicted about being on strike, especially those who work in hospitals, schools and care homes.  But the strike is an effective tool whether that be as simple as an overtime ban or as complicated as rotating strikes.

Many people, especially if they are personally inconvenienced, are negative about a strike.  However, I have found that if the issues are explained to them, they do come around to seeing the necessity of job action.

Many politicians, like our present Prime Minister, profess to have great faith in collective bargaining and, at least in front of union audiences, declare how the labour movement has helped build a stronger, more equal Canada.  Yet these same politicians, acting on behalf of their corporate clients, have ordered thousands of workers back to work.

CUPW was just legislated back again in December by Trudeau’s Liberals who were copying Harper’s Conservatives actions in 2011.  In that ruling, “the Court found that taking away the right to strike substantially interfered with a meaningful process of collective bargaining as protected under s.2(d) of the Charter.  The Court noted that the bargaining proposals of the parties before and after the introduction of the back to work law revealed a clear shift in power between the Union and the Corporation.  Whereas the Union was forced to make significant concessions in an effort to reach an agreement and avoid punitive legislation, the Corporation was able to escalate its demands and seek even greater concessions than it had in the months of negotiations preceding the legislation.  The Court concluded that the evidence clearly established that the legislation disrupted the balance of power between the parties, thereby substantially interfering with a meaningful process of collective bargaining.”

If one party knows that it is going to be bailed out by some higher power it will have no reason to bargain.  The frequent use of back to work legislation has to end if we are to truly respect workers’ rights. That is crystal clear to all with an open mind.

Brian Charlton

Columnist, Tide Change