The Incredible Shrinking ‘Right to Strike’

by Barry Weisleder
Nowadays, the mere threat of back to work legislation is enough to prompt labour leaders to submit a dispute to arbitration.
In sectors of the economy where job action can instantly cost the bosses dearly, workers for over a century were accustomed to flexing their industrial muscle to win, or at least before feeling the hammer blow of Parliament.
As the latest dispute on Canada’s railroad shows, the anguish of thousands of workers who suffer extra-long shifts is cruelly set aside. Their lack of adequate rest time hikes the risk to public safety – but who is held to account? Arbitration can take months, and rarely finds a solution to fundamental problems like work overload and dictatorial supervisors.

backgr1That appears to be the fate of 3,000 locomotive engineers, conductors and other workers represented by Teamsters Canadian Rail Conference. Their one-day strike against Canadian Pacific on February 15 was ended abruptly. The company had no incentive to bargain, knowing full well that Conservative government anti-strike legislation was waiting in the wings.
Equally significant was the fact that no other railroad workers’ union, much less the umbrella 3 million member Canadian Labour Congress, expressed a willingness to back defiance of the boss class law.
That sad situation was duplicated when 4,800 Canadian National Railway workers represented by UNIFOR reached a deadlock in negotiations. The company actually threatened a lockout, and the union agreed to binding arbitration.
The labour-based New Democratic Party spoke in Parliament against the Tory government’s anti-worker stance. But NDP MPs certainly didn’t encourage defiance – not even in the interest of protecting public safety.
Still, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
The right to strike, except in the case of tiny, marginal units, has become a mirage.
Consider the strikes of postal workers, teachers in Ontario, and public sector workers in Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Saskatchewan that were ended even before they began.
The old adage – if you don’t use it, you lose it – is confirmed in spades.
It is yet another reason rank and file workers urgently need to shift gears and replace push-over leaders, in order to get labour back on track.