Editorial: Strikes should be an option

With the Ontario government struggling in its negotiations with public sector unions, the debate has focused almost exclusively on whether it should impose a contract through legislation or seek one at the bargaining table.

The implication has been that a strike or lockout isn’t an option. But it’s interesting how the political discourse has changed. We used to occasionally have teacher strikes, for example. But with the introduction of provincewide bargaining, an assumption has emerged that strikes would be too disruptive. So it’s no surprise that Premier Dalton McGuinty took the legislative route this summer by imposing a wage freeze.

But what about the rest of the public sector? There’s no doubt that the work government employees do is valuable and necessary, but do they provide de facto essential public services in the way teachers now do? For many of them, the answer is no.

So rather than accept the dichotomy that we have to push the unions to either accept a contract they don’t like or face the same terms through legislation, what about allowing for the possibility of strikes? Given that many unions have already realized that any wage settlement is likely to be at or near zero per cent, a strike wouldn’t necessarily be that long. And if the public finds the disruption intolerable, we’ll end up with settlements close to what the government has been seeking anyway.

We seem to have forgotten that labour relations are essentially about the power struggle between two sides as each seeks leverage over the other. In the end, if we truly want to reform the compensation structure for the public service for the long term, we may have to accept the messy reality of strikes. That may be what it takes to get rid of provisions such as banked sick days until retirement. Imposing a contract may do that, but the government should use that option sparingly.

There’s no doubt that the government is right to tackle public sector compensation given the fiscal realities. The unions, too, would be wise to acknowledge this, which some of them have already done to some extent. But let’s allow the bargaining process to play out. If the government can’t save as much money as it hopes, it can propose the service cutbacks economist Don Drummond proposed in his report this year. The public, then, will have to choose between maintaining services and suffering a strike for a while to get the savings in another way. That’s how it works in the real world.

Glenn Kauth

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