Thursday, May 2, 2013

The lessons of Alberta's jail-guard strike

It has been a fairly interesting week in Alberta labour relations, with prison guards staging an illegal strike over unsafe working conditions. The lesson of this strike is that employers usually get the union that they deserve. For example:
  • If an employer is unresponsive to serious concerns about workplace health and safety, this will tend to (further) drive workers together because workers realize they can only rely upon one another.
  • If an employer unjustly disciplines workers in such a heated environment, this can trigger job action, including a wildcat strike.
  • If the employer acts in a high-handed and arrogant matter during the strike, other workers may join in and the strike can spread.
At present, the government is engaged in punitive post-strike action against the union (e.g., seeking dues suspension, costs for the strike) as well as apparently reneging on its agreement not to persecute workers involved.

There are a couple of potential explanations for this behaviour. The most rational reason (and this may be overly charitable) is that the government is seeking to increase the cost of illegal strikes to deter unions from staging them (reflecting that illegal strikes tend to be highly effective). This thinking reflects a profound misunderstanding about the internal dynamics of unions and this strike in particular. Absent egregious employer misbehaviour, union leaders are generally unable to trigger an illegal walkout. Workers aren’t mindless drones that the union manipulates. Generally (although not always) illegal strikes happen (often to the union’s surprise and dismay) in response to long-simmer problems and a catalyzing incident (both of which reflect employer decisions).

Further, once union members’ blood is up, it is often difficult or impossible for the union to control the illegal strike. Unions are political and democratic organizations and leaders must be responsive to the demands of their members (if they want to stay leaders). Smart union leaders try to ride and channel such action into something constructive (which is basically what the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) did). Given this dynamic, fines and punitive actions are unlikely to significantly affect the course of an illegal strike. AUPE president pretty much admitted this when he said: “Fines are the cost of doing business.”

A second (and certainly not mutually exclusive) explanation is that the government is lashing out after a week of damaging negative publicity. Setting aside that much of this was self inflicted (to paraphrase the president of the AFL, would you put a pyromaniac in charge of a forest fire?), the Tories are already in electoral trouble due to scandals and incompetence, with support eroding from both flanks. They are (quite rightly) concerned about the potential impact of further strikes—especially if any of the opposition parties can figure out a way to convert strike support into riding-tipping votes.

What the government ought to be more concerned about is that their “management” of the strike took the province very close to the precipice where the government looses control. Imagine, for a moment, that Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk had continued to egg on AUPE members and the strike had gone on or expanded. Both were possibilities—something the government must have had an inking of since they sent a note to all employees saying (I’m paraphrasing) “this strike is illegal so simmer down”.

If contempt of court fines weren’t effective at ending the strike, at some point a judge would have gotten pissed off and ordered arrests of peaceful strikers—who also happened to be law-enforcement personnel. At this point, the government would have to face two questions: (1) would there have been a general strike, and (2) would police officers (most of whom are unionized) have balked at arresting fellow cops?

Let’s deal with the general-strike question first. This sounds a bit unlikely, given the general state of Alberta’s labour movement. But dig a little deeper. At the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) convention last weekend, a motion directing the AFL to plan for a general strike if right-to-work legislation was defeated, but by such a narrow margin that they actually had to do a vote count (I think it was 153 to 147). Basically half of the delegates were prepared to direct the AFL to trigger a province-wide strike about an issue that is a ways off. If provoked, I would think a general strike is quite possible—and that was the subtext of the AFL press conference yesterday deriding the government’s post-strike attacks on AUPE.

On the second question, I think it is likely that at least some police officers would have declined to arrest fellow cops who were peacefully protesting serious health and safety issues. And at that moment, the government’s control over the province would be lost. While government is powerful, it is in control only when (1) we all agree to go along with its decisions and (2) the government can compel dissents to comply. Widespread disobedience and no ability to compel compliance means there has effectively been a revolution (like the Ukraine’s orange revolution of a couple of years back).

Pushing the populace to the point when the legitimacy of government is imperiled or lost (and this was the direction things were going) just to look tough is massively irresponsible. Certainly it demonstrates fundamentally poor political judgment by the Deputy Pyro… errr… Premier. The complete absence of the Premier in such a situation is particularly troubling.

One would hope the government would have learned some lessons from the festivities of the past week. Yet the stories emerging from the remand centre, where the Deputy Minister apparently threatened discipline and termination of the strikers (despite government promises to the contrary) suggest otherwise. I don’t think any of the current crop of MLAs have any sense of what an ugly strike is like. Lukaszuk was about 15 when Gainers went down and the Premier maybe 20. Hopefully they don’t need to learn this lesson the hard way.

-- Bob Barnetson

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