Tuesday, October 5, 2010


A couple posts back Here we were talking in the comments about how the outgoing mayor of Toronto got the city into a garbage strike and lost a ton of popularity over it.  Ziggyny in particular suggested that either caving in right away or holding the line forever would be acceptable but that holding for awhile and then giving up is simply not okay.  I think this is a really good example of a very difficult situation that is made very simple in hindsight.  Obviously if the mayor knows that the union will literally strike forever unless they get their deal he is much better off just giving them what they want right away but he does not know that at all.  When he makes the decision to force a strike he only knows that they might back down and that the city cannot afford to pay what they are asking.  Once he is in a strike situation his choices are entirely different; he must eventually give in and has to hope that the opposition will blink first.  He can give in at any moment and gain public approval for ending the strike but he will have to suffer public anger at either increased taxes or lowered services elsewhere to pay for it.

Another consideration is that fact that he is dealing with many unions.  Running the garbage strike forever simply isn't viable and giving in right away to any union that threatens a strike will bankrupt the city.  Sad as it is a big part of negotiating is convincing the other side that you are absolutely willing to screw both groups over to strike a favourable bargain.  I experienced this all the time in sales - the customer tries to convince the salesperson that they will walk out and never return if they don't get what they want and the salesperson tries to convince the customer that they will give up the order entirely to avoid lowering the price further.  In sales it is merely a matter of both sides not wanting to give up the time they invested together but in city/union negotiations it is both sides not wanting to give up popularity, service and/or pay.  Here is the bitch of the matter:  The city simply cannot negotiate reasonably without the unions being convinced that the city will force a strike if they have to and the only way to make the unions sure that the city means it is to let strikes happen now and again.  I bet that many of the strikes that happen really are just one side or the other trying to send the message that they won't be messed with and quite frankly that is just how things are always going to be until we get rid of huge union negotiating groups.

Note that doesn't mean necessarily that Miller or the city did the right thing in forcing a garbage strike but it does mean there are very good reasons for them forcing strikes sometimes and outsiders are going to have a hell of a time picking out which times are right and wrong.  I tend to have a pro city slant to my thoughts because I have a lot of problems with big unions in general as I find that any job that ends up being done by unions ends up with nothing but problems to show for it.  Unions had their place in times past but the basic protections they demanded are available to all employees now and at the moment they mostly act as giant parasites sucking off dollars from employers by getting their members more money and then taking that money in dues.  While unions continue to fill public sector job categories wholesale we will continue to have these painful strikes and consistent overspending, no way around it.  Sometimes the city is to blame for an individual strike but the situation as a whole really isn't their doing.


  1. I think people greatly overestimate how entrenched the values that unions fought for are. It would be very easy for workers rights to erode over time. We do stupider things than that.

    But public sector strikes are actually a total mess. When factory workers go on strike, their employer loses a lot of money every day that production is stopped. When public sector workers go on strike their employer continues to collect all, or at least the vast majority of, its revenue but doesn't have to pay them. Letting your unionized workers go on strike for a month is a great way to balance the books.

    As for how hard it is to make the right decision in a negotiation, I agree that there was no way for the city to know the right decision, and they may have made the best decision available to them at all times. But when your opponent get his inside straight on the river against your set of Aces, you still lose all your money. In politics you pay for the outcome, not the validity of the decisions.

  2. While it is true that always giving in and never forcing strikes to happen means you will get taken to the cleaners by unions again and again, what does giving in after a period of striking say? It says that once a strike starts they just need to hold out and keep striking and eventually they'll get what they want anyway.

    A) If he always gives in then my taxes go up or my services errode generally.

    B) If he gives in after a long strike then my taxes go up or my services errode generally AND I have to suffer through the complete loss of a service for months.

    C) If he forces a strike and gets a reasonable deal out of it then I have a complete loss of service for months and a smaller impact to my taxes or services long-term.

    I don't want any of those options but in a world with powerful unions I have to accept that one of these is going to happen. To me B is clearly the worst, A is clearly the best, and C is a reasonable result given the other options.

    You could say that running option B doesn't mean you'll always run option B and as long as you sometimes get C out of it you're happy with that result. Personally I'm not, and would prefer A every time, but I can see why one would think that. However, I think once a mayor goes for C and ends up with B then his future bargaining is shot. A generic mayor may be able to get some Cs but I don't think the mayor that gave out a B has good odds at getting a C later on. Also, he's more likely to have B last a longer time to prove a point to his future opponents but will eventually cave.

    Which is why I said I'd make sure to vote for someone else - anyone else - over Miller. I think having him around for future negotiations would be a disaster for me and my values. Because I don't think he'd be rational, realize he'd cave, and just go to A going forward but because I think he'd be a stubborn politician and make things even worse next time.

  3. I actually Ziggyny makes a good point about how having one disastrous bargaining result really makes you a weak target in the future. To use Ziggyny's letters, I think Miller was probably going for a C because he was worried about the public perception that he was an A kind of guy (whether you like A's or not, being seen as being in the pocket of big unions is very, very bad politically).

    Anyway, I also think we have to consider the possibility that this was just a book balancing strike. Let the workers go on strike for a month, save a month's worth of salaries, carry on as normal after. As I said above, public sector strikes are pretty much just a disaster.

    Essential services workers go to binding arbitration is they can't hammer out a deal, since we can't exactly have our firefighters go on strike. Since other public sector workers often use the essential services deals as frameworks for their own bargaining positions, that might be the direction to go for all public sector workers. Of course then we'd start running deficits because our governments couldn't force unions into two to three week unpaid vacations.

  4. I respectfully disagree about unions no longer having an important role. For the last year I've been part of the OSSTF (Ont Secondary School Teacher's Federation) and I've seen, from the inside, work that unions do. It's usually not fun and it's never glamorous but I'm still doing it because I've seen that it is really important.

    Protecting workers rights (both collectively and individually) is hugely important from a social justice standpoint. Unions action can easily seem ugly but it is a key component to maintaining a strong middle class (cliche sounding ... I know) which I think is really important.

    I'm also the treasurer of my bargaining unit so I have a good idea about where the money goes and how much comes off of my paycheque. Money well spent for certain.

    In service training. Providing support for grievances and arbitration. Protecting the work week. Protecting and improving maternal and paternal leave rights.

    I speak not from a vague sense of unions but from personal experience as a volunteer within union ranks.

  5. I have been in a number of jobs and never part of a union and yet I never felt like those things you bring up were a concern. Companies that want to attract real talent need to treat people well or they end up losing their best employees. I suspect having a union actually makes the employer far more likely to try to chisel away at the benefits employees receive because they are facing such a strong opponent in bargaining, whereas an employer who instead is competing with all the other employers out there for good personnel is more likely to try to find ways to keep people happy. Unions certainly brought about many big benefits but I feel like all the rights I ever needed are now protected by the government or are negotiable with the employer.

  6. What you're missing is that not every company wants to attract real talent. Seriously, how much skill do you need to have to be a garbage man? Does the city actually care if it hires the best garbage man in the world or if it hires some guy? There's no way they'd have 18 sick days if they weren't in a union because if they worked out individual contracts with any random dude they'd be much, much lower than that. I have 2!

    Is society as a whole actually better off with garbage men and auto workers and teachers getting extra benefits while data analysts and fast food workers don't? (And worse, since my taxes are going up or my benefits are going down to pay for those other people, is society as a whole benefited when I'm worse off to make them better off?)

  7. "Now protected by government" is a far cry from "always will be protected by government." I also completely disagree that employers facing off with unions are somehow more likely to try to lowball their employees as much as possible in terms of benefits and wages. Employers want to pay everyone as little as they possibly can.

    I don't like the adversarial bargaining process of unions vs. employers, but it's a lot better than the completely one-sided process of employers telling employees what they get. That means the employees who have good bargaining skills get paid a lot and employees who have poor bargaining skills get paid very little. Having unions negotiate on your behalf is just specialization of labour.

    When talking about public sector workers, who exactly are the employers competing with? While the schoolboards nominally employ teachers, the province pretty much pays everyone's salary. Some teachers may be able to move to Vermont, but if your spouse also has a job and you have friends and family then simply moving to another province or state doesn't really work. Maybe garbage workers can afford to be a little more selective since they have different municipalities to choose from, but if they didn't have unions to contend with then municipalities with inevitably make agreements with one another about how much they were going to pay for garbage collection to avoid competition.

    We have laws that prevent companies from collaborating on prices because 1) monopolies are bad for society and 2) competing is stupid and cooperating is smart - very large companies would not compete if they weren't forced to by law. There are no similar laws in the labour market. Companies do not have to compete with one another to pay a higher salary and they will avoid it if they can.