This article appeared in Consent #2 (March-April 1988)
- Lloyd Walker
On April 9, 1987, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the right to strike is NOT protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As a result, union leaders have claimed that the door is now open for the government to legislate any strikers back to work. The "labour movement" is in an uproar, but for all the wrong reasons.
Let's identify the nature of a "job" before we look at the validity of any argument supporting strike action.
No one has a "right" to a job. Jobs are not property that can be possessed like a house or a car. Jobs are a consequence of voluntary agreements between two parties, an employer and an employee. As such, a job cannot be "possessed" or "owned" in the sense of property. An employer-employee relationship is as intangible as a marriage relationship because if either party left, the agreement, the relationship, and thus the marriage ceases to exist.
In a voluntary relationship, either party has the right and freedom to terminate it.
In a free society (i.e., where all relationship are voluntary), governments have no right to impose relationships. Agreements between CONSENTING parties require governments only to arbitrate or enforce the voluntary contract. And the function of government is to be an impartial arbiter of justice.
Since all of us, even those without union representation, have the right to withhold our services (i.e., quit our jobs), what is the labour movement really supporting by arguing that the "right" to strike be constitutionally guaranteed?
The "right to strike" is really not a "right" at all; it is a political privilege. Unions want to be able to withhold labour from management or owners without taking the same risk everyone else must take in effort to increase wages. Organized labour wants jobs recognized as "property" so it can "possess" those jobs and thus prevent anyone else from "owning" those same jobs.
In short, unions want to control not only their own members, but non-members as well --- through the form of legislation that protects them from competition in labour.
Government legislation is the key to organized labour's willingness to ignore the economic realities of the day and to pursue policies that are detrimental to its members, to employers, and to labour competition. This legal privilege prevents the labour market from being self-regulating, causing the "need" for even more government involvement in employee-employer relationships.
Philosophically and pragmatically, there is only one way to obtain and maintain a privilege of this type --- through the use of FORCE.
Admittedly, the use of the word "force" in this circumstance upsets a lot people, particularly those within the labour movement --- and with good reason. After all, a common expression of force is direct physical violence, something most people condemn, yet something which unions criticize only half-heartedly, especially when they perceive that their interests are at stake.
But regardless of one's personal perspective on unions, it's pretty hard to deny that they get their power to coerce relationships from the very source that should be preventing the use of force --- government itself. Why? Because the labour movement has successfully pressured legislators into ignoring the RIGHTS of individuals and granting some of them (its members) SPECIAL STATUS. But, special status only lasts as long as you have the legislator's ear. In today's world, power changes hands with each election and thus the voices heard by government also change.
Given these political realities, it is quite possible that legislators could ban the very existence of unions (i.e., even as voluntary labour associations). Of course, this would be just as wrong as what they're doing now, but either consequence would be the result of labour legislation based on pursuing INTERESTS at the expense of the RIGHTS of individuals.
When it comes right down to it, the truth is that all of us have the right to withhold our services. What we DON'T have, and should never have, is the "right" to hold our employer or any other citizen hostage to our desires.