Balances of power, and the Postal Service Lock-Out

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I think that people are prone to abuse power and we need a lot of checks and balances in a system. I think collective bargaining and strikes are necessary to balance the power of employers. I think that back to work legislation can be necessary to balance the power of strikes. But – and this is a huge but – I think back to work legislation should only be used to help when there is a drastic power imbalance and the striking workers are causing so much harm to the public that something really needs to be done. When the Canadian Postal workers union started their rotating strikes this June they did so very moderately. Mail was delayed but not stopped. It isn’t an undo burden on the public to have to go an extra 24 hours without mail and we can tell this because we’ve now been a lot longer without mail. The union workers were reasonable.

The workers were reasonable. They weren’t abusing their power. They were being decent. So Canada Post would have to bargain with them, which it didn’t want to do, and the Conservatives had no excuse to apply back to work legislation. So Canada Post locked them out. I’m guessing that they were pretty confident in having the Harper Government’s support. I’m guessing they knew they’d get a better deal if they didn’t have to negotiate at all.

I think of my kids. I think of how when my three year old and six year old are playing together, the three year old will often start screaming. Why? Because he can’t get his way in a negotiation and he wants me to come and intervene. I do try when this happens to take a quick peek at what is going on in the room to see if the six year old is being horribly unreasonable, but unless there’s some sort of physical violence, I try to keep out. I want them to learn to negotiate, and I don’t want currying my favor and support to be a part of their negotiations.

Canada Post did the equivalent of screaming. They asked for intervention. The Conservative government has jumped at the chance not just to legislate the union back to work but to force on them a wage offer less than Canada Post has offered. Vengeful punishment? Or pushing their general agenda of trying to keep wages low for everyone but CEOs?

I wonder partly if the Conservative government wanted the chance to try to force the NDP into an awkward position. Could that have been one of the reasons for making the back to work bill so objectionable? Force the NDP to try to do something and then revel in either the NDPs powerlessness or in being able to blame the NDP for holding up everyone’s mail? No, I doubt that was intentional, I suspect they just saw that as a happy side perk.

There is so much showmanship involved in politics. Canada Post’s lock out not only got the government and opposition involved, it got the public. The question becomes “who does the public blame for holding up the mail?” Does the public blame Canada Post for the lock-out? Mainstream media kept the pressure off Canada Post by continuing to call it a strike rather than a lock-out. Once back-to-work legislation was called for and the filibuster was started the question was will people blame the Conservative government for their obnoxious legislation or would they blame the NDP for holding up the mail in an attempt to allow both more time for negotiations and better legislation? Either the Conservatives or NDP could have ended the filibuster (the Conservatives by suggesting more reasonable legislation) but both had reasons to want the filibuster to continue, as long as they thought they could keep public support.

I was happy on Saturday to see at least some headlines reporting that mail could be resumed by Monday if Canada Post would just negotiate! But what reason did Canada Post have to negotiate? None, as long as they could count on the Conservative Legislation going through. As official opposition the NDP could stall the legislation but only as long as public opinion would let them. Had the public given clear support, they could have kept going much longer. If public support had been spectacular, the NDP might have been able to hold off legislation long enough for Canada Post to see the need to negotiate. Public opinion is part of the checks and balances, in this case limiting the power of the NDP.

Why didn’t public opinion limit the Conservatives? Is it because the public generally agrees that it is okay for the government to set the wage offer, and to dictate a final-offer arbitration instead of any other form of arbitration? Is it because people don’t like unions? Or they just want to get their mail? I think it is because the Conservatives assume that anyone who supports unions isn’t voting for them anyway, so who cares what they think, and they could distill the whole situation into an easy to sell message.

The left needs to get better at selling its message. This is one of those occasions where public opinion could have swung things differently, and there’s going to be more times coming up. The National Union of Public and General Employees (nudge) has a great webpage about pulling together public support for public values.

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