Editorial: Have we lost our tolerance for strikes?

As a party that’s presumably a big proponent of free markets, it’s a bit surprising to see the federal Conservatives repeatedly showing themselves willing to intervene in labour disputes.

Wages are supposed to be based on the intersection of supply and demand, so if the government really believes in free markets, it would let workers like Air Canada flight attendants fight for their pay packages according to economic realities.

If the labour supply is tight, the airline will likely have to pay more. If there’s a surplus of workers, the company can get a better deal.

It’s not so simple in the airline industry, of course. While Air Canada boasts that it gets 25 applicants for every job opening, a strike is crippling for its operations and revenues, a fact that puts the union in a stronger bargaining position.

At the same time, it’s not easy for an airline to bring in what employers might call replacement workers and unions call scabs given the training required for jobs in the industry.

That, however, is Air Canada’s problem to sort out. In the meantime, the government has responded to labour disputes in recent months with repeated threats of back-to-work legislation. Last week, before Air Canada and the Canadian Union of Public Emp

loyees reached a tentative agreement, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt was already vowing to introduce a bill. The government, she said, will continue to do so whenever a labour dispute threatens the economy or causes inconvenience to the public.

But what ever happened to the right to strike? Surely, it trumps the rights of travellers to get home, particularly when there are other options available such as competing airlines, trains, and buses.

It’s not fun for passengers to have to go through that, but is that really more important than constitutional rights? At the same time, are Air Canada’s operations that fundamental to the health of the Canadian economy? It’s hard to see how that would be the case.

At Canada Post, the government repeatedly legislated employees back to work during numerous strikes, some of them wildcat, over the years. It did so again this year when the company locked out postal workers.

But in that case, it at least let the dispute play out before introducing a bill. With Air Canada last week, however, Raitt was already announcing intentions to immediately move forward on legislation before a strike even happened.

That’s arguably not fair to either side. If a presumably employer-friendly Conservative government wants to help businesses like Air Canada restructure their labour costs, they have to be able to let their workers go on strike in order to achieve their goals.

And if employees want to fight for their demands, they, too, need to be able to stop working. Legislating people back to work — or threatening to do so in advance — likely leads to an unsatisfactory result for all sides: a status quo settlement achieved either at arbitration or during frantic last-minute bargaining as we saw at Air Canada last week.

So besides asking what happened to the right to strike, it’s also worth looking at how and why we as a society somehow lost our willingness to tolerate work stoppages. Strikes aren’t fun, of course.

But whether you favour workers or employers, the best results come from allowing the parties to work out their differences themselves according to their own resources and the economic realities.
— Glenn Kauth

For related content, see "Feds go too far with back-to-work bills."

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