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

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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