Friday, May 2, 2014

Air Canada, direct action and the decline of industrial pluralism

Yesterday was May Day and I popped in on the rally in Edmonton. There were a couple of hundred folks there from a variety of labour and social movements, although I’d hazard a guess that AUPE and the Wobblies comprised half the crowd.

Just before going to the rally, I read a very interesting new article in the Labour Studies Journal entitled “An era of wildcats andsick-outs in Canada? The continued decline of industrial pluralism and the case of Air Canada.”

This piece looks at the Harper government’s handling of the various Air Canada disputes in 2011 and 2012. For some time, legislative coercion has reduced the space for legal industrial conflict. The Air Canada disputes suggest the government attack on industrial pluralism is moving more aggressively into the private sector.

The question this raises is: if workers are denied legal ways to economically pressurize their employer and express their dissent, will then begin (perhaps over their unions’ objections) to express themselves illegally or extra-legally? And, more interestingly, does such repression in fact galvanize workers to act in concert because it becomes clear how the industrial relations system is stacked against them?

Government repression of organized labour doesn’t mean workplace problems go away or that workers accept their lot in life. What the Air Canada suggests is that conflict tends to surface in other ways, such as sick-outs and wildcat strikes (or absenteeism, presenteeism, theft, sabotage--the repertoire of the oppressed). These forms of industrial conflict—direct action by workers—are far more disruptive than legal strikes and lockouts because they are sudden, sporadic and largely uncontrollable.

-- Bob Barnetson

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