Monday 20 July 2009

Strikers are their own worst enemies

A striker is defined as anyone involved in a strike or concerted stoppage of work by employees including a stoppage by reason of the expiration of a collective-bargaining agreement and any concerted slowdown or other concerted interruption of operations by employees. Strikes may arise from disputes over wages and working conditions. They may also be conducted in sympathy with other striking workers, or for purely political goals. The right to strike is granted in principle to workers in nearly all industrialized countries. During the twentieth century and this century also, most strikes were and are organized through labor unions. Although the possibility of striking enhances the bargaining power of unions, strikes are a tool of last resort for workers. Strikes are called only when the demands or claims of labor remain unresolved in the collective bargaining process and in grievance procedures.

The decision to call a strike does not come easily, because union workers risk a loss of income for long periods of time. They also risk the permanent loss of their jobs, especially when replacement workers hired to continue operations during the strike stay on as permanent employees.

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that labour unions play an important role in assuring that their members are treated fairly by their employers. But there are times when the unions act in a very stupid manner and often lose thousands of dollars and act in a manner that angers the general public.

Often when labour unions are in conflict with their employers, an irresistible force meets an immovable object. After weeks of huffing and puffing, there are no winners but there are plenty of losers in the ranks because long strikes cost the union members more money than the benefits they eventually gain from going on strike. Why does this pattern repeat? And why do these strikers take to the battlefield in defence of indefensible positions? The answer is quite simple. They are stupid.

An example of this occurred many years ago when employees of the Toronto Star went on strike. They stood outside the newspaper’s building for ten years until their union had no more money. They didn’t get their jobs back either because they were replaced weeks after the strike began. The amount of their personal losses is incalculable.

In Toronto, the city employees who are members of CUPE at the time of this writing have been on strike for over a month. Aside from the fact that day care centres, libraries, swimming pool and parks are closed, the city’s garbage isn’t being picked up resulting in a terrible smell in certain areas of the city where the garbage is being stored.

With so many of us worry about keeping our jobs, it is hard to imagine a more miserable time for city workers to press their grievances or a less compelling lead issue than pay for days they did not work and were not sick. But somehow thousands of unionized workers are striking and making lives of people in Toronto miserable during the worst recession in decades. City workers seem blind to the financial instability most taxpayers are living with.

But rejecting a pay raise and hitting the streets, when thousands of people would love to have their jobs, is just plain stupid. And picketing ambulance sites and hassling people who are trying to take their trash to temporary dumps is not the best way to win friends and influence people.

CUPE members are not alone in this particular brand of insanity. Lots of groups take great pains to alienate the public and destroy their long term prospects for little or no gain.

Statistics Canada data show that an average of 271,370 eight-hour work days were lost every month to work stoppages in the first quarter of 2009. The major strikes under way are affecting approximately 1,800 city workers in Windsor and 24,000 in Toronto, 3,500 Vale Inco employees and 3,500 paramedics in B.C. Labour disputes were recently resolved for 3,400 teaching assistants, contract faculty and graduate assistants at York University, and 2,300 Ottawa transit workers.

The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, the union representing the controllers employed by the Federal Aviation Administration, called a strike in August 1981 to press the government for salary increases, reduced hours, and better retirement benefits. When 11,345 striking members disobeyed President Ronald Reagan's ultimatum to return to their posts within 48 hours, they were fired. The government decertified the union as the controllers' bargaining agent and imposed severe fines and criminal charges against some of the union officials. Despite President Bill Clinton later reinstatement of the dismissed air traffic controllers in 1993, many observers believed Reagan's success in breaking this strike demonstrated the growing weakness of organized labor in the United States. It certainly follows that during that 12-year period in which the striking air traffic controllers were not employed as aircraft traffic controllers, they lost a great deal of income. They would never recover the losses they suffered as a result of their strike.

CUPE, which represents approximately 8,000 communications workers across Quebec, had supported Quebecor’s Videotron employees through a bitter year-long strike ending in 2003. Representing Videotron in its dispute with Quebecor had cost CUPE millions but taught the union an important lesson: be creative and keep the workers busy. During the strike, Videotron technicians had been involved in vandalism, which landed them in court. CUPE was also facing a $42-million lawsuit.

In British Columbia, publication of the Vancouver Express was resurrected during an eight-month strike in 1978-79 at Pacific Press, but this time it faced opposition from advertising boycotts organized by both the Employers' Council of B.C. and the Vancouver Board of Trade. Despite that obstacle, the Express proved so profitable that strikers had little incentive to accept a contract offer and return to work. Their loss of income during their strike could never be recovered.

Also on Vancouver Island, workers striking the Comox Free Press began publishing the Independent as a weekly in September 1994 after owner Thomson Newspapers closed the 103-year-old Free Press a month into the labour dispute. The Victoria-Vancouver Island Newspaper Guild launched a challenge to the closure of the Free Press before the provincial Labour Relations Board, claiming unfair labour practices, but the LRB ruled in the company's favour six months later. By then, however, the Independent was still being published by union members earning $200 a week in strike pay, but it folded after Thomson started up a new paper in nearby Nanaimo.

By far the longest-publishing modern strike newspaper in the United States is the Wilkes-Barre Citizen's Voice, which has been in existence for 28 years. It was started up by 200 workers who walked off the job in 1978 at the Times Leader, a 70,000-circulation monopoly daily that had recently been purchased from local ownership by the media conglomerate Capital Cities. The strike officially ended in 1982 when the company had the unions decertified, but by 1986, 140 of the 205 union members who had struck the Times Leader in 1978 were working on the Citizen's Voice for strike pay. Only 12 had returned to work at the Times Leader, which published using mostly replacement workers. During the 1990s, however, support for the Citizen's Voice declined, as did circulation, which by 2000 stood at 32,589. The declining support prompted its employee owners to sell the Citizen's Voice in 2000 to Scranton-based Times-Shamrock Communications. Ironically, the sale was completed only after employees agreed to contract concessions they had been unwilling to make before going on strike.

When 400 members of the Photo-Engravers' Union refused to submit their dispute with Manhattan newspaper publishers to arbitration in 1954, the engravers went on strike and 20,000 other newspaper employees refused to cross their picket lines. The eleven-day strike shut down Manhattan's dailies, cost the papers a total of more than $10 million in revenue and the employees more than $2,000.000 in wages. The engravers, among the highest-paid newspaper employees, finally agreed to go back to work and submit their differences (a $7.50 weekly wage increase v. $3.75 offered by the publishers) to a three-man fact-finding committee. Last week the fact finders announced their verdict (with the union member dissenting): a $3.75 weekly package increase, i.e., just what the publishers originally offered before the strike took place. This week the engravers accepted the "distasteful bitter pill" by a vote of 209 to 76.

I remember that when the world’s fair (Expo) of 1967 was held in Montreal, the transit employees went on strike. The Toronto Transit Commission members went on strike during Pope John Paul II's visit to Toronto in 1984.

The teachers always seem to go on strike in the first month that school begins but not always. The York University strike shut down the campus on November 6th 2008 when the 3,340 teaching assistants, contract faculty and graduate assistants walked off the job. Job security for professors on short-term contracts, full-time openings for part-time faculty, length of contracts and more funding for graduate students were key issues on which the two sides had been unable to agree. The province ordered an end of the strike but thousands of students lost over a month of studies as a result. Further, they lost the month of May for summer employment, meaning the estimated loss of summer earnings for these students was at least $1,400 if they worked full time for four weeks at minimum wage. With respect to the lecturer’s strike at York University in Toronto, those on strike lost income, but this has little impact on their employer as they saved money. Strikes damaged lecturers' reputation because public sympathy will be with the students, not with those on the picket line causing the suffering.

I personally hope that the CUPE strike in Toronto continues, although I confess that not being a resident of that city, I am not personally affected by it. My reason for hoping that it continues is that the longer it does, the longer the strikers will suffer from loss of income. They get union pay but it is far less than what they would get if they hadn’t gone on strike. Perhaps after they have each lost thousands of dollars in lost income, money they can never recover, maybe the message will come across to them; that message being, be reasonable in your demands, especially when so many people are our of work.

UPDATE: The CUPE strike ended in August. However there is a more recent story to add with reference to what happens to strikers when things go bad.

The employees of the Lever Brothers soap factory in Toronto were getting $25 an hour which came to a thousand dollars a week. The company was suffering financially and told its employees that it would offer them a new contract but it would eliminate seniority rights. As many as 160 union members refused the offer and then went on strike for 14 months thereby reducing the output of the products that the firm was selling on the market. This resulted in the company filing for bankruptcy and closing down. While on strike, the 160 men were only collecting $250 strike pay a week. Compare that with $1,000 a week they were earning before they went on strike and nothing after the company closed down. During the 14 months, their strike pay amount to $14,000. Had they not gone on strike, they would have each earned $56,000 during that same period of time. Going on strike cost each of the strikers as much as $42,000. On top of that, they cannot collect employment insurance because they left their employment to go on strike and they are now out of work.

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