Thursday, June 30, 2011

Union Strikes: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Good to be home at last, and to enjoy the comforts of the Manor, not the least of which is the outdoor swimming pool. Irving had kindly brought me a serious Grey Goose martini, and all was well. The day was improved with the arrival of my youngest daughter, Victoria, who, incredibly, wanted my advice upon something. (This hadn't occurred since she was ten). Wonders never cease.

She had arrived in style, in a red Ferrari 599 GTB Fioreno.

Irving, in bringing her around to the pool, asked, "How the hell can she afford that?"

"You forget her little sideline," I replied.

As readers will remember, even if Irving didn't, Victoria supplements her income as a brilliant historian by appearing in ghastly Grade B horror films as a victim sine qua none. The rewards are significant, and I have wondered from time to time that it's probably the history income that is the minor player here. Not many historians tool around in Ferraris.

But I digress.

Apparently Victoria had been commissioned by the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) to write a brief but accurate history of unions. This she had done, but had included a component that she was uneasy about. Hence the request for advice.

The day being sunny and hot, Victoria stripped and soon was splashing about in the pool while I gave her paper a read-through. As I drew to the end, I saw what the problem was.

First, The Good

Victoria had traced the first recorded instance of union activity to 1245, when a strike was organised by the weavers of Douai. (Wonder if they got dental?) From there she cited activities on the part of the medieval guilds right to modern times, with appropriate references to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and George Orwell's Down The Mine. All good stuff, and of particular interest was Victoria's insight that the achievement of better wages, workplace safety and health benefits all contributed to the growth of a contented middle class, a true bulwark against revolution. It is no accident that Lenin wanted the Middle Class to disappear (and Stalin made sure that it did).

Then The Bad

Victoria then launched into an area that really had no business being in such an historical accounting. In short, and in terms of strikes, she makes the point that strikes are fine in the private sector, but should be banned for the public sector.

In the private sector, the firm is the target. In the public sector, it is the public that is the target. Her argument here was that the firm was at risk, and the firm's management could either negotiate or not. The striking union had to be aware as well that if the firm lacked the resources to meet the union's demands, the firm could fail, and the union's members would be out of a job entirely. This is mano e mano stuff, with only two parties involved.

In the case of the public sector, THREE parties are involved -- the union, the government, and the public at large. Victoria's point here is that the public is innocent and really not responsible for the situation that has led to the strike. Yet it is the public that bears the brunt of the strike, whether in terms of teachers unavailable to students, no mail delivery or garbage collection that suddenly isn't. She indicates that certain services deemed essential to the public welfare are not permitted a strike option -- police and firefighters fall into this category. They can Work To Rule, but the issue can only be resolved through binding arbitration. It is this policy that Victoria wanted adopted for all public and civil service unions.

And she is absolutely right.

But that is not what the NLRB asked her to write about, and I reluctantly advised her to drop the section, suggesting at the same time that the thesis be saved for a future paper. Victoria heaved a sigh, and agreed.

Now The Ugly

This next bit has nothing whatsoever to do with strikes or unions, but I include it because shortly after Victoria left, I came across a newspaper item that indicated that the next chair of the UN Human Rights Commission will be North Korea. Unbelievable, and I close with these words from Cervantes Don Quixote: "Too much sanity may be madness, and the maddest of all to see life as it is and not as it should be."

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