Thursday, February 16, 2012

Surprise: Illegal health care strike

It appears that some hospital support staff workers who are members of AUPE have gone on a wildcat strike today. You can read the initial coverage in the Journal and CBC.

AUPE has been in negotiations with Alberta Health Services for a contract that expired last spring and bargaining has reached an impasse. AUPE members rejected a mediator’s recommendation a few weeks back and bargaining resumed last week. When the employer brought an offer lower than the mediator’s recommendation, AUPE walked away from the table.

This morning a series of information pickets were planned (with workers attending during breaks). In some locations this appears to have escalated into an illegal strike unbeknownst to the union.

Illegal strikes are often highly effective because they are massively disruptive for employers and, in the public sector, tend to escalate. The 1995 laundry workers strike in Calgary is an example of that. For that reason, Canadian labour law has long constrained strikes to specific time periods and required notice ahead of time.

One of the lessons that illegal strikes teach is that employers can’t force people to work. If employers treat workers poorly (e.g., make unreasonable offers at the bargaining table), one risk they run is that workers will put down their tools. Apparently ensuring their wages were not eroded by inflation was important to these health care workers. Now the employer is facing the difficult task of determine which of its hundred of facilities are affected, how they are affected and then attempting to maintain basic services.

A second lesson is that government cannot expect to use the law as a way of containing the effects of underfunding public services. At some point, workers will view strike bans and back-to-work orders as illegitimate and disobey them. Such a decision (which can happen seemingly without much warning) create a host of problems for the state, which largely relies upon the consent of the governed to maintain order.

An illegal strike is the first step to repudiating a government’s legitimacy and authority. I’m not predicting anyone will be storming Government House this afternoon. Rather, I’m pointing out that wide-spread civil disobedience poses very difficult problems for the government. Do you arrest workers who violate the law peacefully? Do you have the capacity to do so? Will doing so cause escalate the disobedience as other workers join?

On the other hand, if you acquiesce to the demands of workers, what will other workers infer? That, if their (notionally independent) employer drives a hard bargain, they can end-run the employer by amping up the pressure on the government?

These are tricky issues for the government to manage, particularly with a provincial election looming.

-- Bob Barnetson

1 comment:

Bob Barnetson said...

One of the more interesting online comments on this story is in response to the suggestion that AHS fire all of the striking workers.

"Yes, they should FIRE US ALL. Let's see anybody get any care when that happens. The hospitals and clinics across the province will come to a grinding halt. Unless, of course, you think the doctors and nurses actually keep these places running. Or maybe you think there are 22,00 other qualified people just standing in line for our jobs. Keep in mind that most of us have specialized training and/or university degrees. I have no problem being fired for standing up to a greedy, self-serving executive. "

The poster then goes on to state what many suspect:

"And, by the way, the union hasn't officially stated that they are backing this action but we were all sent notices of "rallies" to take place today. Read between the lines."