British Columbia's despotic New Democratic governing party enacted emergency back-to-work legislation, forcing school support workers to end a weeklong strike that kept the province's 375,000 school kids on an extended spring break. "Free collective bargaining is dead," thundered the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), who orchestrated the strike. Having refused to cross the picket lines for their young charges, the shapers of future generation's mores, the B.C. Teachers Federation, castigated the government for the undemocratic blow it dealt to the process of barter at the point of a barrel, otherwise know as collective bargaining.
Why the unions evince such surprise that a socialist government would override the right of workers to withhold their labour is a mystery. When it comes to liberty, socialism and fascism are in philosophical tandem. Still, the union's outrage is understandable. The striking support workers should be free to be greedy and bereft of principles to their heart's content. Should they wish to withdraw their labour as a bargaining chip, government has no business instructing them to return to their posts. What the strikers should not be licensed to do is to prevent the B.C. Public School Employers Association, the weak counter-union representing the trustees and school boards, and, with any luck, the children and parents, from conducting business as usual.
CUPE's wish list incidentally entails demands for job security, a seniority clause, cessation of layoffs, and even a "me too" clause so that, in the event that one local gets a bonbon that the other doesn't, the rites of Rumpel Stilskin can prevail. Most ignoble, CUPE is determined to prohibit volunteers without its express consent. With one fell swoop the union can expunge from schools the values volunteerism represents, yet retain the broad support of society.
Despite their all-round economic futility, I would have no objection to unions were they voluntary, non-coercive associations that looked out for the needs of workers without trampling the rights of other non-aggressive parties. The Labour Relations Code extinguishes this moral base line. Bullying begins with the worker. According to the B.C. labour Relation's Code, a worker who wishes to opt out of collective agreement must seek permission from the Board, which in turn will consider the request if it is based on religious grounds. Freedom of association, a sometime Charter right, seemingly holds no sway in labour law. As penalty, the employer or employee must then remit the equivalent of union dues to a charity. Where oh where are civil liberties groups when property is confiscated and when the right of free association is violated?
Take the real underdog in a strike, the scab, whose label reveals more about those who affix it than about its recipient. If a job is nothing but an embodiment of an agreement between two consenting parties, then it cannot be owned. By striking, the workers renounce this agreement. Why then do the kings and queens of organized labour remain convinced they retain ownership of their jobs, and that the poorest workers among us should be prohibited from competing for these jobs?
In a 1991 paper in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic studies, Professor Block reminds the coercive unionists, that, unless they subscribe to a caste system, it is ludicrous to assume that there are "two groups of people; those who own the jobs…and all other people who must refrain from bidding for them."
The main work of the strike is that all-familiar sullen, bedlam-corridor shuffle along the employer's property. The Labour Code practically admits that the object of the picket is to physically prevent people who would like to deal with the struck employer from so doing. The rejoinder that the picket is intended as a means of giving out information does not pass muster. Professor Block asks us to imagine the local McDonalds sending hundreds of its agents to surround Burger King for the ostensible purpose of information giving. Transpose this menacing and threatening specter to any "commercial or personal arena," and the picket's harassment value becomes crystal clear.
Employers, for their part, are denied their right to protect their property and enterprise by Labour Code fiat. Where certification obtains in B.C., a struck employer must prepare to sustain his livelihood in the face of a prohibition on hiring replacements. Neither can he seek legal redress for "petty trespass…or interference with contractual relations…or trade, arising out of strikes or picketing." All of which lays bare the moral compass of a society in which such thuggery occupies such an exalted position. ©2000 By Ilana Mercer The Calgary Herald April 6