The use of back-to-work legislation is now becoming very common in high-profile Canadian labour disputes. We’ve seen it in cases like like last year’s Canada Post strike, the ongoing contract dispute with BC’s teachers and mow with Harper’s move to block a strike/lockout of Air Canada workers next week. In each, employers took a hard line from the beginning, refusing to negotiate because they knew any attempted strike would be squashed by the state, leaving them winners by default. Canada Post actually locked out its workers, BC has stuck to a policy of “net-zero” increases in pay and benefits and Air Canada has just tabled a final offer four weeks into a six-month mediation process. In this way, employers are turning collective bargaining and strikes into an ugly cycle of provocation and blame, threatening to demolish decades of legally established rights.

When legislation like this appears, it tends to be cloaked in language of “essential services”. While this may be somewhat clear-cut when it comes to services like health care, water or power, it gets increasingly blurry as other public and even private services are included. Do people need schools to function every single day to survive? How about mail carriers? Baggage handlers? Where does this end? If barristas at coffee shops walked out, would they be ordered back for fear of the business world grinding to a halt?

Perhaps a good working definition of “essential service” would be “work which we take for granted”.

These workers are human beings. They have lives, bills and families. They, like us, only have a limited time on this planet and have devoted a serious chunk of it toward serving others, often for low wages in utterly awful conditions. This is not a reason to look down on someone, it’s a reason to be very thankful. Those attempting to demonize workers want us to forget that it’s these workers, far more than those who manage them, that bring us the goods and services we’ve come to rely on. Cutting their wages and slashing their benefits won’t get us a “better deal” because we’re workers too, and sooner or later will be effected by the contagious effects of falling wages and declining spending money.

Are strikes like this disruptive? Yes, that’s the point. When one side of a contract doesn’t can’t or won’t cough up the cash to satisfy the other, they don’t get their goods or services in return. Could anyone imagine Harper legislating a Ford dealership back “back to the table” for refusing to accept your offer of $50 for an Explorer? Of course not. That isn’t considered “disruptive”, even though the damage done by high prices in areas like housing, food and transportation produces far more misery among ordinary Canadians is far greater anything a strike could produce.

It’s often claimed that our economic woes are the result of “greedy workers” (especially in the public sector) demanding too much in wages. Because of unions which have grown “too powerful”, we’re told our industries are no longer “competitive”. These claims are blatantly dishonest. Average wages for the vast majority of Canadians, like those in America and elsewhere, have stagnated since the 1970s and union influence has been in decline since this eighties. Corporate profits, investment returns and the incomes of the top 1%, though, have grown incredibly. It’s obvious where the profits of the enormous growth in productivity we’ve seen over that time have gone, and this latest round of cuts can only really be understood as a part of that larger process.

The relatively high wages of Canadian workers have been crucial in supporting our consumer economy, tax base and the wide network of global production which has grown around us. It is economic lunacy to think that our economy can survive as more and more sectors plunge into temp industry wages. This will only increase the Wal-Mart-ization of our economy, making it impossible for people to afford anything but imported goods made in sweatshops, from giant branded warehouses staffed by workers making poverty wages. It will further erode taxpayers’ ability to support social services, for themselves and those less fortunate, turning many poorer areas further into ghettos with their own sets of expensive problems. Even more people will be forced into precarious work and crushing debts. Every time this happens it encourages more employers and industries to do the same in a “race to the bottom”. This isn’t a threat – it’s been happening for decades now, but it may soon get much worse.

“Essential services” have always been a battleground. For the establishment, they’re an important tool in keeping us dependent and compliant, by providing for our basic needs. For workers, though, the ability to shut them down has always threatened to bring governments to their knees, as seen in any general strike. This is why the government is working so hard to present a conflict between these workers and the general public. And why we, as the public, need to show a little solidarity right now if we all want to have a hope of standing up to these cuts.

If workers in “essential services” are so vital to our society’s function that they can’t be allowed to go on strike, doesn’t that suggest that they’re worth a decent wage?

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