Government and postal union must respect each other as partners

They have permanent jobs that pay reasonable wages plus pensions and benefits. Why do they want to strike? For the marginally employed at minimum wage without benefits, this is a reasonable question. For society as a whole, and with a view to the long term, the postal workers’ ongoing labour dispute paints a different picture.

A 2010 study by Germany’s Institute for the Study of Labour (IZA) found “evidence that the reduction in bargaining coverage adds to [the wage inequality] increase in a sizable way.” A 2017 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that the share of employees covered by collective agreements has “declined significantly over the past 25 years” leading to a “broad decline in the use of collective bargaining to set the terms of employment.”

In a 2013 report, Canadian economist Jean Boivin defined integrative bargaining as “the function of finding common or complementary interests.” The process, Boivin claims, “serves to optimize the potential for joint gains and has a win-win quality.”

History’s major strikes erupted in reaction to dramatic changes in working conditions. Industrialization introduced new opportunities for wealth creation and accumulation. The labour required to realize these opportunities was supplied by workers in mines, foundries, and factories. Working conditions were horrendously difficult by today’s standards. Voting citizens did little to ameliorate working conditions. Withdrawing their labour and thus putting pressure on their employers was often the only effective means available to draw attention to their deplorable working conditions.

Initial government involvement tended to back employers, using the force of law to put an end to work stoppages. It was not until the adoption of the Trade Union Act in 1872 that Canada acknowledged that “unions were not to be considered associations that obstructed trade” (Gérard Hébert, 2015). The Criminal Code was finally amended in 1934 to allow unions to set up information pickets.

Political parties like to claim credit for social benefits, services, and employment standards enacted by legislatures and parliaments. However, as Boivin reminds us, “medical insurance in union contracts preceded national medicare, pensions preceded universal pension plans, safeguards against discrimination preceded human rights legislation.”

Resolutions to major labour disputes have, over time, opened doors to legislation bringing lasting social benefits not only for the negotiating parties, but for society as a whole. The experience of the past two centuries suggests that the integrative bargaining process Boivin describes is less costly and more effective than the confrontational process of strikes and/or lockouts.

Problems facing workers and employers are never identical. If a conflict resolution negotiation is to succeed it is therefore essential that the parties listen to and respect each other as partners. In other words, a successful work dispute resolution is only possible when employers and governments respect the workers’ right to negotiate.

Digitalization and globalization are transforming economic norms with far-reaching consequences in every sector of our economy, including the postal service. It remains to be seen whether or not Parliament’s intervention in the postal strike will pave the way to legislate further measures to bring about fairness in the distribution of the wealth created by the new economy. If it does, we owe our thanks to postal workers for having taken what to some was an unpopular stand.

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