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A strike a day

By Walter Robinson
web posted August 20, 2001

If you were anywhere near a government building in Ottawa this past Wednesday, chances are you saw workers from the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) walking the picket line. Although they were up early to "inform" the 7am keeners who are strike-exempt or who chose to cross the picket line, most "workless Wednesday" strikers were home by noon after earning their 35 bucks worth of strike pay. Don't worry if you missed it, these one-day (read: Five hour) strikes are also scheduled for August 22nd and 29th.

Most picket lines, sparse as they were, constituted peaceful affairs. Strikers merely delayed their colleagues – forcing them to call supervisors to get them across the lines – for periods ranging from 10 to 30 minutes. However, blocking the Portage Bridge and inconveniencing thousands of motorists or delaying hundreds more on the parkway near Tunney's Pasture weren't the most astute moves. Pop quiz time: Who thinks that upsetting the public from whom you need to garner support is a wise strategy? Any takers?

Nonetheless, this job action raises an immediate question, what's at issue? As well two more philosophical queries arise: Are strikes still effective and are unions still viable? Like most labour disputes, this one is about money. This answers the "at issue" question. You've got to hand it to the PSAC "creative slogan" department. Signs that read "2 per cent is for milk, not workers" were cute wordplay. And dressing up as cows ensured good TV visuals.

On the money front, Treasury Board is offering some 65,000 clerical workers 2 per cent a year over the next three years while 12,000 blue-collar workers (plumbers, firefighters, electricians, etc.) are staring at 2.5 per cent annually over the same period. With local inflation running between 3.5 per cent and 4.0 per cent (3.2 per cent nationally), there is some merit to the union response that this is really a pay cut. The union says they want 5 per cent per year over three years. At first glance the two sides don't seem far apart.

But as Sun colunmist Steve Madely pointed out on Thursday (read his column at www.canoe.ca/Columnists/madely.html), PSAC is also looking for more statutory holidays, a shortened workweek, increased overtime pay and enhanced vacation packages. Taken together, PSAC's total demand package is easily a double digit hit for the government.

But you can't really blame the union? They're merely following the example of MPs who voted themselves a 20 per cent pay hike and 42 per cent pension windfall back in June. And Ottawa's senior mandarins also received an 8.7 per cent jump not long ago, not too mention annual performance bonuses that continue to be paid to 95 per cent of this elite club.

However, don't think for a moment that the Chretien government is fazed by this unrest or a potential full-blown strike this fall. Public opinion, at this point, is indifferent.

To start, these walkouts are voluntary. Police estimates put the total number of picketers around Ottawa at 5,000. Of the 77,000 workers across the country, a potential of 30,000 could have walked off the job this week, another 25,000 or so are on holidays and the final 22,000 are deemed essential. If only 5,000 out of an estimated 19,000 in the national capital region hit the bricks for their $35 in one-day strike pay this past week, that's telling in itself and does not bode well for solidarity across the rest of the country.

This brings us to question number two: Are strikes still effective?

Increasingly, the answer is no. To start, PSAC president Nycole Turmel admits, "it's quite difficult to totally shut everything down." A full-blown strike would surely impact immigration activities and the employment insurance operation along with other HRDC programs, but much has changed since the last public service strike when the Tories were in office in 1991.

Even though the Liberal government has openly showed more disdain for its employees than the previous regime, this administration is on top of the polls as opposed to the Conservatives that languished at the bottom. Translation: Turning public opinion against the government is exceedingly difficult. Doubly so in an economic downturn. And amidst continuing private sector layoffs, attitudes are sure to harden vis-à-vis federal workers with perceived job security.

Government offices are now also more strategically spread across the country. In many instances these offices – especially outside of Ottawa – are situated in commercial properties with public malls and private enterprise. Restricting access to these facilities is tenuous at best so crossing a picket line becomes a non-event.

Technology is also a factor now as opposed to 1991. Even if key government buildings are shut down, senior managers can simply dial in from home or the road to pick up e-mail, edit documents, hold on-line chats or even videoconference to keep the machinery of government in motion.

Now, the final question: Are unions still viable? Of course a full debate on this point is beyond the scope of this column but let's kick it off. Disruptive actions by unions are most effective when production, be it mining, automobile assembly or government program administration is centralized and co-located. Part and parcel in this environment one usually finds assembly line production (or cubicles galore in the white collar world) where work is segmented and regimented, job descriptions are rigid and advancement is a function of time on the job as opposed to production in the job.

Yet today's workplace and workforce – private or public sector – is quite different. Production on the job has replaced time in the job as the definitive criteria of compensation. Work has become highly individualized, project and task oriented with the advent of information technology as opposed to more historic, sequential production.

As a result, more independent consultants are utilized and off-site production becomes the rule, not the exception. No doubt this hampers union recruitment drives. Moreover, these individuals are content to negotiate their own pay packages, knowing that job security is a function of their skill sets, not a function of a union membership.

Could solidarity forever be coming to an end? ESR

Walter Robinson of the Federal Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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