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Monday, April 06, 2009

AUPE members “negotiate” while French workers take hostages. Is there really a difference in tactics?

The right to strike comes from the basic libertarian idea of self-ownership. Since you own your body and your mind, you also own your labour and the products of that labour. And since you own your labour, you can strike if you don’t like the terms of your employment, notwithstanding any existing contract to which you might be subject.

The right to join a union also comes from the basic libertarian idea of freedom of association. If you feel your position within a company might be enhanced by the collective bargaining process, you should be free to join a union.

But employers should have the same basic right to self-ownership and freedom of association. An entrepreneur should have the same right to his labour, and to control the products of his labour, as the people he chooses to employ. If he doesn’t like the terms of his relationship with his employees, he should be able to break that relationship, provided there are no existing contracts.

Freedom of association, to have any coherent meaning at all, must include the freedom not to associate -- and an employer may decide that striking workers are not the sort of employees he wants. In fact, he may decide that unionized workers, in general, are not the sort of people with whom he wishes to associate. Similarly, workers may choose not to associate with employers who forbid unions.

In a free society, wages would be freely negotiated. Labour unions would work hard to drive wages and benefits up using collective bargaining and the threat of strikes; employers would work hard to drive wages and benefits down in order to maximize profits. And from this perpetual struggle would come a market clearing price for labour.

But we don’t live in a free society.

In a press release today, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) announced that a private sector long-term care employer has ratified a collective agreement with its AUPE members that matches the wage and benefit improvements achieved in province-wide health sector bargaining last year.

The agreement was ratified by a “huge majority” of members at an April 2nd vote at the privately-owned and operated Forest Grove Care Centre in Calgary, said AUPE Staff Negotiator, Ken Cutrell. Approximately 160 members of AUPE Local 048/017 are employed at Forest Grove.

“This confirms that the wages and benefits set in province-wide bargaining with the health regions last year are fair and affordable for all employers, including private health care employers,” said AUPE President Doug Knight.

What’s “fair” is what is freely negotiated, and what’s “affordable” will no doubt depend on the business circumstances of each and every organization. This agreement proves nothing except the power of unions to force agreements where no real agreement exists.

While a collective agreement was ratified by AUPE members at the Forest Grove Care Centre, 60 AUPE members employed by AgeCare at the Valleyview Care Centre in Medicine Hat have been on strike since March 13, seeking a contract similar to that “negotiated” with the Forest Grove care facility employees.

“We encourage AgeCare’s owners -- Drs. Kabir Jivraj and Hasmukh Patel -- to recognize the value of their staff, and meet the standards set by the majority of health care employers in this province,” said Knight.

But what if the owners of AgeCare disagree with AUPE brass on the value of their employees, and what if they don’t think their unique and constantly changing business circumstances make it possible for them to meet the standards to which other health care employers are complying, including the Alberta government, which is free from market forces?

That’s the question I asked Mark Wells, Communications Officer with AUPE. He kindly responded:

Hi Matthew,

You asked: "What is the law concerning firing workers on strike and replacing them with non-unionized workers?"

The answer: It's illegal.

Illegal? It’s not much of a “negotiation,” is it, if only the unionized employees can exercise their basic right to self-ownership and freedom of association? If an employer cannot replace striking workers, he has little choice but to "negotiate" at the barrel of a gun, metaphorically speaking.

In France, however, workers have dispensed with this “barrel of a gun” metaphor in favour of the real thing. Last week, the media reported that:

French workers burned tires, marched on the presidential palace and held a manager of U.S. manufacturer 3M hostage Wednesday as anger mounted over job cuts and executive bonuses.

The French workers, like the AUPE members, are “negotiating” for better wages and benefits. The French have just dispensed with the legal niceties that attempt to hide the exploitation of entrepreneurs and business owners, and have opted instead for a more honest form of coercion: naked violence.

It’s unlikely that the rights of business owners in either jurisdiction will be protected by law in accordance with natural justice.

Posted by Matthew Johnston

Posted by westernstandard on April 6, 2009 in Economic freedom | Permalink


Matthew, I heard somewhere that the union movement in England did not start, as most believe, from the grassroots trying to protect themselves from greedy employers. But rather from some businesses themselves who were trying to protect themselves from new competition emerging from the "cottage" industries. If this is true, then their tactics are still being employed today with the same result. Less competition, higher prices, less wealth for all but a few, and erroded property rights.

So sad.

Posted by: TM | 2009-04-06 6:31:11 PM

thank you matthew for pushing the issue and bringing it a voice.

Posted by: howard roark | 2009-04-06 7:20:05 PM

Modern trade unions were accorded the quasi-immune status they currently enjoy gradually, in stages, starting at the beginning of the 20th century. Bitter labour strife had for decades wracked numerous industries, often leading to violence on a level unheard of today. Striking workers could be extremely violent, as bad as lynch mobs, and companies frequently employed armed strikebreakers, such as the Pinkertons, to protect their people and goods.

All of this came to a head in the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado in 1913. Conditions at the mines were unusually harsh, with death rates twice the national average and workers being paid "scrip" instead of lawful money. Scrip was redeemable only at company stores, where prices were artificially high. Armed guards were frequently used to harass labour activists and their families, and in one infamous incident, the National Guard more or less murdered 66 miners and their families.

That said, the strikers were not gentle, innocent souls either. Their level of violence against the management and especially against hated "scabs" or replacement workers was noteworthy even for the times. In many states miners formed terrorist organizations like the Molly Maguires to burn, loot, and kill or maim company officials or suspected scabs and informants.

After the Ludlow massacre, Congress essentially decided that it was either give the unions what amounted to a higher standard of immunity under the law, or else keep shooting them. But while company managements have become far less brutal in their dealings with their employees, the union members themselves have not kept pace. Violence and thuggery are fairly common in union shops. Even female-dominated unions, like the BCTF, are famous for lawbreaking and mob behaviour. Perhaps the pendulum is finally beginning to swing in the other direction. It's time the kid gloves came off.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-04-06 7:34:41 PM

Do not forget that in a free society workers also have the liberty of not belonging nor paying dues to a union. In Canada they do not enjoy this right.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-04-06 8:08:06 PM

I remember when I was an undergrad, I was obliged to take a course on "labor history" from a former labor activist and communist.

It was more fun than you might think, and every class became a heated debate between... well, me and everyone else.

I wrote my final paper on strikebreaking and argued that strikebreakers serve an important social purpose by enabling employers to enforce their property rights when the state won't do so.

Got an A, too. The prof wasn't a bad guy, and I was sad to hear that he'd died about a year later.

Good post, Matthew

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-04-06 8:27:03 PM

Whether or not a union gets traction is generally up to the employer. I have worked both sides of the fence, with abusive employers that begged for union intervention and other companies where the union was a pain in the ass. Either way, it was my choice to stay or go. Smaller companies with good management seldom have problems keeping unions out. Large corporations....the opposite. From personal experience the large corporations deficiency is simply this, :treat your employees the way you would like to be treated if the positions were reversed:. Japan is very good at building loyalty to the company by taking advice from front line workers and treating all workers with respect.Western management could learn a lot , if it was interested. Usually its not and likes to rule with an iron fist. I have worked for and with managers who were highly educated and absolutely stupid when dealing with employees. Todays unions are self serving and no longer have the workers or the companies best interest at heart. Somewhere there is a happy medium but it's very elusive.

Posted by: peterj | 2009-04-06 10:19:41 PM

peterj, I can appreciate that you have experience from both sides that most people do not. Regarding the happy medium, it does not really exist. Either property rights are protected or they are not. The happy medium allows some level of infringement on them. It's as simple as that.

The happy medium you are prbably thinking about is where we make progress from where we are now. That would be nice, but real property rights would still not exist.

Posted by: TM | 2009-04-06 10:53:30 PM

Posted by: TM | 2009-04-06 10:53:30 PM

As you well know,no one has enshrined property rights in canada. If you slam the gates shut on your property and shut down the business, then your property rights are protected. The minute you open the gates to any work force, union or not, the labor laws kick in.

" Either property rights are protected or they are not".

Not. I can't see that changing any time soon. Would be political suicide, as there are far more votes on the working side than the owner side.

Posted by: peterj | 2009-04-06 11:26:35 PM

Scabs are good. Scabs are nature's band aid.

Posted by: Grant Brown | 2009-04-07 2:17:41 AM

I'm sorry Matthew I don't get the point of your article. Are you suggesting that AUPE engage in "naked violence”?

In Alberta labour laws are not neutral, but are highly in the favour of employers. Even the United Nations has expressed a negative option of labour laws in Alberta.

Posted by: Guy | 2009-04-08 9:38:20 PM

But these laws are not "highly in favour of the employer" as my post and the comment from AUPE clearly proves, Guy -- not even if the UN says so.

Only one party is allowed to withdraw from the relationship -- employees can strike or quit, and I support that. The employer can not fire striking workers and therefore is forced to "negotiate" at the barrel of a gun, metaphorically speaking. The employer either watches his business fail, or he give in to legally sanctioned coercion.

Is it naked violence? No, but it is coercion. Naked violence, I would argue, is more honest but just as grotesque.

If you're a striker from Medicine Hat, you should go to work tomorrow and negotiate with your employer. If you can't come to an agreement, threaten to quit. If he is still unresponsive, then quit and find an employer who values you the way you think you deserve to be valued. But don't let your union bully an Alberta business on your behalf.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-04-08 9:52:59 PM

I am not a striking worker Matthew, I am just trying to understand your point of view. You write that "Only one party (I assume you mean unionized employees) is allowed to withdraw from the relationship" however did you know that Alberta employers do have the right to lock out?--Is this not how the employer walks away from the relationship with its employees? How about the rules regarding getting a first contract--did you know that after 10 months of no contract a union can be decertified? So could one argue that the gun the employer gets to hold is much more effective in the long run, as they could simply ignore a union? I do agree that one option for the employee is to "vote with their feet" however what are the implications of this behaviour in the absence of other factors ?

From what I have been reading in the papers I understand that AUPE is ready to meet with the employer you talked about. I understand however that it was the employer who has walked away from the table?

Posted by: Guy | 2009-04-08 10:27:35 PM

Hi Matthew, I appreciate your interest in our union's business, but you've left some key facts out in your anti-union tirade. For instance, you never mentioned that AgeCare is continuing its operations at Valleyview Care Centre using scab labour, so we can hardly be accused of holding the employer hostage. Further, the employer has in fact also locked us out. It was only a matter of timing - hours in fact - that the employees went on strike first.

Posted by: Mark Wells | 2009-04-09 9:06:47 AM

Mark, let me thank you again for responding to my email request. Not every organization respects independent media. Your response and participation on this thread reveal an admirable willingness to engage your critics.

AgeCare is using replacement workers? That's great. AgeCare provides a service to the public that should not be disrupted by the arbitrary demands of your union members. ("Scabs" is such an insulting word for working class people trying to put food on the table for their families, Mark. I would think a champion of the working class would be more considerate of the plight of non-unionized workers.)

I don't know the labour laws. Can you explain to WS readers under what conditions an employer can bring in replacement workers during a strike?

And how does a "lock out" work exactly? Negotiations break down and the employer says "you're locked out" and brings in replacement workers until things are resolved? Why wouldn't the employer just keep the workers in place until things are resolved or until the employees walk of the job?

These are sincere questions that I hope you'll take the time to answer.


Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-04-09 3:44:03 PM

I think most unions realize that there is not a endless supply of money to be paid to employees but when a publicly funded institutions like the Agecare group claims they can't pay the workers the going rate and one that promotes poverty levels of income to these workers, I think maybe we as taxpayers have to look at how and why we are supporting these private for profit groups and why they cannot pay the employees a living wage

Posted by: Glen Scott | 2009-04-09 5:00:18 PM

Hi again Matthew. Sorry I missed your last reply. Just in case anyone returns to this post I thought I should send an update: Agecare reached a settlement with our members in the end that reflects market conditions and gave wages and benefits comparable to those offered at similar seniors facilities in the area. Yes, there was acrimony in the process, but in the end there was a good resolution achieved when the employer showed a willingness to return to the bargaining table after our members spent about a month on the picket line.

To answer your questions: a lock out or a strike does occur when negotiations break down, and typically an employer does seek to bring in replacement workers. This is not illegal in Alberta, but it doesn't help resolve bargaining disputes.

Strikes and lock outs are used by one party in a labour dispute to pressure the other party in the labour dispute to come back to the bargaining table. In either case it's a demonstration of how firm you are in are bargaining position and the intent is always to achieve a resolution in the dispute.

I agree with you that the term "scab" is derogatory but it is derogatory for a reason. The worker who comes in to do another's work is delaying the bargaining process (which, as I point out above, is a two-way street) and ultimately taking the food from one worker's family to put it on their own family's table.

As a defender of democracy I hope that in the future you'll keep in mind the fact that members have vote to bring in a union, and then vote for their elected representatives every year at the chapter, local, and executive level. They have to vote to approve a strike, and vote to approve any agreement the union comes to with the employer. They can also vote to decertify their work site if they feel the union hasn't fairly represented them.

Unions are one of the most democratic institutions you can find. Most communist regimes make them illegal for this very reason.

Posted by: Mark Wells | 2009-09-29 10:30:17 AM

Mark, another worker who takes away a job you refuse to perform is not taking away anything; he is accepting what you have given away, and will take back only according to your own terms. Terms no one is under any moral, legal, or ethical obligation to give you. And what about the garbage collectors' unions in Toronto blocking access to property they don't even own? How do you justify that? You can't, can you?

Democratic, my ass. They're uncouth mobs. They respect no one's rights but their own.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-09-29 10:55:25 AM

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