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Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Kabuki Strike 

Mickey Kaus likes to refer to certain political actions as Kabuki theatre, in the sense of highly ritualized for-show performance.

Well, that's kind of how a modern strike works. Right now I'm in the midst of some exciting job action. Why strikes work is interesting.

Any strike is a sort of ritualized dance, though one made rather edgy by the real money that is at stake, be it on the negotiating table, through the witholding of pay to employees, or the witholding of services to employers. I think mating rituals are an apt analogy: like rams butting or peacocks strutting, union and management (and in this case, the provincial government, maybe playing the role of the eligible mate or something...let's not let this analogy get out of hand) are playing a little game with carefully-created rules and limits, but one which both sides care very deeply about.

In this sense, a nice clean strike is better than the alternatives, which involve stuff like rioting, stone-throwing, etc.

Like a mating dance, the strike game is a sort of display of will. The more strength you display, the less likely you will actually have to do any real fighting. The first show of strength is usually the strike vote. 50% is bad, 90% is good, anything in between is mediocre. While ostensibly just a poll of membership will, strike votes are essentially votes of confidence in the bargaining team, so voting against a strike mandate is typically grounds for the bargaining committee to resign and be replaced. It happens.

The second show of will happens with the actual strike. In the case of the colleges right now, the union is doing a very tactical rotating multi-college walkout, basically an effort to maximize the duration and publicity while minimizing the real pain, especially for students. It's even more ritualized than a typical strike, and perhaps thus even better than a straight strike. This strategy was probably born from the fear that a simple general strike would just get college support workers declared essential-ish and ordered back to work by legislative fiat.

Meanwhile, management has its own tactics and dance moves. They declare that the money for raises doesn't exist. They declare that their hands are tied, in this case by government wage mandates. In the case of our strike, they did things like temporarily end flex schedules, cancelled a professional development day, and cancelled a two-day reading break. I think they're going to cancel Easter, too. Some of my co-workers were shocked, but I was more philosophical. It's not so much that these are petty and probably meant as punishments (whatever their somewhat reasonable justifications may be) as they were managerial attempts to make clear that they do have power over the workers. The problem is these were pretty modest threats.

And so the ritual progresses. I think some of my co-workers don't really think much of the strike, often on the basis that a raise is unlikely, or that it won't compensate for the lost wages from the strike itself. But especially in the case of this strike, there are long-term effects that can be made manifest. Even if the union doesn't win its desires in this round of bargaining, the demonstration of a willingness to strike is a useful precursor to future bargaining. Meanwhile, if something is won at the table, even if you have effectively cut your pay by as much as the raise gives back thanks to strike action, any raise is effectively forever, and it establishes a new baseline for future negotiations. It is out of such incremental concessions that cushy union jobs are made.

In our negotiation, I made a joke about the government acting as the prospective mate, and it's not entirely for fun. They are a third player, in this case with the role of needing to be forced back to the table. This is a useful dance for all kinds of reasons. The government gets to look reasonable, but not like a push-over, by only entering negotiations after the strike is well-established and serious-looking. They also look firm, because they were initially unwilling to add money to the pot. And finally, they limit the losses to an extent, since a union that fears being legislated back to the job without a raise (or with a rollback) is likely to ask for and agree to less than it otherwise would. The union can take a few points of raise and say to the members, "we won you a raise!" The government can be happy the raise wasn't 10% or worse, and gets credit for being benevolent in giving 5% instead of being criticized for stinting because they bargained down to 7%. Everybody is unhappy, or just a bit happy. The system works.

At some point, there will be a settlement, and like two males in the same herd, union and management go back to their normal roles, which in a reasonably healthy workplace like mine, are essentially cooperative. The important thing to remember is that this stuff isn't really real. The dance of witholding work and witholding wages is about demonstrating strength and vehemence in a benign arena, but one with real stakes, however limited. Like I said, strikes are sort of peacock displays for unions: an impressive one will make all the good things in life come your way, with minimal actual pain.

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