Conrad Black: Public-sector unions are a blight on our society – May 6, 2013

CFN – The announcement this week by Tony Clement, Canada’s capable Treasury Board President, that representatives of his department would attend collective bargaining sessions at Crown corporations, is entirely welcome. The entities he singled out for careful examination in search of budgetary economies were Canada Post, Via Rail and the CBC. These all present different administrative challenges, but the idea is a first positive step in the long-overdue overhaul of this entire process.

The largest problem here, and doubtless the last one that will be tackled, is that there simply should not be any collective bargaining at all in the public sector. Former Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis was correct when he said 65 years ago: “The right to strike against the public interest does not exist.”

For many years, the often explicit understanding was that public employees would be less well-paid than those in the private sector, but would have greater job security and, in general, less challenging employment. The unionization of the public service consigned that rule of thumb to the proverbial dust-bin of history, and public-service unions began leading organized labour in militancy, while feasting on the weakness and cowardice of political employers.

During the 20th century, as government legislation progressively equalized the rights of the worker with those of the employer, unions became surplus to the requirements of the employed person. This process was accelerated by the frequent irresponsibility and corruption, intellectual and financial, of much union leadership. Many unions were financially mismanaged, and many more were afflicted by cronyism, and excessive compensation for the controlling families and cliques.

But the unions simply raised the ante, and blackmailed one industry after another, threatening shutdowns unless workplace rules were made inflexible to assure greater personnel and product costs than were necessary; which, of course, ultimately made them uncompetitive. The antics of the automobile workers became particularly notorious, as product quality deteriorated and each automobile produced in American unionized plants became tens of thousands of dollars of pension and health benefits wrapped in sheet metal.

The failings of the manufacturing unions were magnified in the public-service unions, where there was no product, nor any competition, and the management side was represented by politicians who were vulnerable in their jobs, being subject to complaint from the worker-sympathetic public for being skinflints, and from the whole public for any interruption of services.

This led to some famous confrontations in the United States and Canada. In 1946, U.S. president Harry Truman introduced legislation to draft striking railway workers into the army, where failure to report to work would lead to court martial and severe penalties, and the rail strike collapsed. In 1970, president Richard Nixon called out the army and the National Guard to distribute mail in the New York City area after a postal service strike. (The workers returned to their jobs and new agreements were negotiated that addressed some of their concerns and reorganized the postal service, but did not grant the right to strike.) In 1981, Ronald Reagan famously fired all the striking air controllers who did not return to work as ordered, and replaced them on an interim basis with military air traffic controllers until new personnel could be recruited.

In Canada, Pierre Trudeau threw the leader of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Jean-Claude Parrot, in jail in 1980 for defying back-to-work legislation, and there were frequent work stoppages in the postal services through much of the 1970s. (Parrot’s predecessor, Joe Davidson, had famously shouted “To hell with the public!”) In Quebec, premier Robert Bourassa jailed almost the entire senior labour leadership at times for defiance of strike-breaking legislation.

Labour strife in education has been one of the greatest frustrations of modern Western society. As it became less and less an occupation for single women or wives in the era before most women were in the workplace, and became more the occupation of people (of both sexes) who had to support a family from a teacher’s income, pressures for higher compensation steadily rose. Skyrocketing costs have been accompanied by sharply declining standards of educational effectiveness, and in the level of competence of students. Matriculation numbers have been maintained only by making the examinations and the curriculum simpler.

The culture has doubtless increased slovenliness and philistinism. But at the heart of the problem of failing public education are the teachers’ unions. Ununionized schools do better than unionized schools, and ununionized schools do not strike and hold the students hostage, putting extreme pressure on homes where there is no adult at home on work days.

It is now a familiar three-hankey tear-jerker to see teachers’ union representatives passionately explaining that the last thing they wish to do by striking in the middle of the school year is hold the students hostage or impinge on the money-earning capacity of their parents; but that is, of course, what they are doing and why they are doing it. I do not doubt that the teachers have many legitimate grievances against school boards and school administrators. But Duplessis was right: They do not have the right to strike against the public interest.

People are free to change their jobs, to retire and pursue other employment. Collective bargaining is a defiance of the free market, which is efficient and meritocratically fair. Union rules standardize, regiment, stifle initiative, discourage enterprise, and concentrate power to intimidate and influence political decision-making in the hands of unrepresentative and self-serving cabals. Unionization divides any enterprise and creates a them-and-us-mentality that is a collapsed lung that cripples and stultifies any organization.

Laws must be constantly reviewed and updated to prevent abuse by employers. And civilized and liveable working conditions must be assured as a matter of inalienable right to everyone. But the surest guaranty of such rights is the free market, as exploited workers will not produce competitive products or services, and will defect from or sabotage by their sullenness any employer who so treats them.

George Smith — who is former vice president of the CBC for human resources and now a professor of collective bargaining at Queen’s University (an utterly ludicrous and anachronistic simulation of a university discipline) — argues that having Treasury Board officials present at collective bargaining negotiations of Crown corporations “goes against decades of industrial relations policy in this country, and I think it’s reprehensible.” Yet this argument illustrates precisely why it is a good idea. For decades, that policy has been mistaken and extravagant, and has encouraged waste, sloth, incompetence and sclerosis.

The CBC itself has not so much suffered from a strangled budget (though it has), but from the misallocation of resources to an administrative clot of bureaucratic stagnation riveted on a network whose creative budget and personnel have been forced to carry this top-lofty bureaucracy. The CBC should be reformed as Charles I and Louis XVI were reformed, by the liberative stimulation of decapitation, and the vital and creative elements should be allowed, and financially permitted, to flourish.

All governments should be cleaned out by a draconian process of zero-based personnel costs and competition for retention of fewer but better-paying jobs, and the private sector should be incentivized to hire those who thus depart the public sector. A modern arbitration procedure should replace collective bargaining in all enterprises, public and private, and George Smith should crown his career by teaching something that someone would profit from learning.

As for Tony Clement, he deserves an all-party commendation for creative thinking.

Mr. Black graciously allowed CFN to reprint this piece  that appeared originally in The National Post.

Conrad_BlackConrad Moffat Black, Baron Black of Crossharbour, PC, OC, KCSG (born August 25, 1944) is a Canadian-born former newspaper publisher, an historian, a columnist, a UK peer.

Mr. Black is also an author, having written two memoirs (A Life in Progress and A Matter of Principle) and biographies of Maurice Duplessis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Richard Nixon.

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  1. Lord Black hit the nail right on the head!

  2. Unions killed marketing and jobs in this country. They should move to third world countries and brainwash the people there.

  3. As usual, CB likes to pontificate but dislikes fact based argument. I’d be interested if he’d actually do that sometime. BTW, that Bangladesh factory collapse – couldn’t, wouldn’t happen in Canada. Why? Union driven health & safety laws. Union driven right to refuse unsafe work and unsafe working conditions. Not so bad after all, eh?

  4. Like in Bangladesh Stella? Those factory workers were taken such good care of by their employers there. Who needs unions? Not employers that’s for sure.

    ps there ms starlight, how is your cushy union job working out for you? What’s good for the goose is only good for the goose, right?

  5. Author

    Of course this piece was also about public service unions; not factory jobs…..

  6. Unions protect the workers regardless of the job. Union bashing is union bashing. And union bashing from your comfy ergonomic chair that your union fought for is disgusting and duplicitous.

  7. Because we have government agencies (like WSIB), Ministries (like Labour & Health) and scores of regulations from them and insurance companies, is there such a safety need for employees such as unions?

    Could products be cheaper if there was not a team of lawyers and layers of administration on both sides to pay for?

    There was a time that unions were most helpful to society, but if you have a long time employee (unions) just thinking of more ways to get more money, the usefulness should be addressed.

    bella-b, I am pretty sure Admin bought his own chair…..and I would imagine insurance companies have pushed for more safe chairs over the years than the old 3 or 4 legged non adjustable models.

  8. Author

    In my life I lost two jobs because Unions over stepped the fiscal abilities of the companies involved. Both times the firms were straight up with the unions; both times they were warned that if they pushed harder the companies would be forced to move offshore.

    Both times that’s what happened. Why? Because we have allowed governments of all shapes, sizes, and flavours, to sell us out as a country. No party is immune.

    Between NAFTA and Unions I’m surprised Canada is still as viable as it is. People don’t realize how amazing our country has been to survive shoddy votership and weak politicians who have never faced down our language issues that have held us back both times.

    Yet Canada is still standing strong. Kudos to the Canadians. It’s time though to push back and make our country better.

  9. I know admin bought his own chair, but some posters who are ungrateful for their cushy chairs and fancy paychecks with bonuses have no place to cry foul.
    And no it wasn’t insurance companies that fought for the ergonomic chairs, thank the unions for that too.

  10. TCF (BCL Canada) in the early 80’s some issues with unions and closed down Cornwall operations, yes there were some recession concerns but unions were not making concessions to keep the jobs. How many strikes at Howard Smith (Domtar) over the years?

  11. Well, Mr Black,next time,play the devil’s advocate and try looking at the gains against working people that Business has made in the last 30 years.With the advent of mass media in the hands of self serving plutocrats,the average worker without protection from a Union,becomes a bovineish follower of the latest neo-consevative imagined outrage against “Freedom” and Democracy”

    Freedom is a relative term and the obvious ploys of the elites in the world is to divide and conquer the great unwashed and allow freedom for the elites to abuse and manipulate the average worker.
    Freedom for average workers means only freedom to choose the type of abuse you are subject to.

    Your recent bout to seek freedom for yourself is to be commended , but please do not forsake those who provide the services and work that allow investors to enjoy the retirement that they are enjoying. I am a fan of your writing and thought you would be a little more charitable to the working and ever growing working poor.
    The above are basically being raped by Corporate Profits and Bad spending and money management by Governments like Canada and Russia.Please set yourself apart and lose the ideology and stop writing to your percieved base.The rich,the greedy and the gullible.

  12. Tony Clement, creative thinking? Another gazebo on the drawing board?

  13. Conrad Black writes about union leaders going to prison. Now here is a topic he is qualified to write about.

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