Coercive Union Power

First Published: 2003-12-16

The response in the auditorium was immediate, loud and negative. Mr. Shane Gibson, president of the Batelco workers- union, said, "Where is all this power that I have?" and "The only power that people have is the power to come together collectively and ask for whatever they think is rightfully theirs." This is a grossly misleading statement.

The issue is not the right of workers to associate. It is the use of coercive union power. Every citizen and worker should clearly understand that the exercise of union power in the Bahamas is unusual and there are adverse economic consequences from that use.

Legal, extra-legal & illegal.

The right to bargain collectively… if done without coercion of or limiting the right of any worker to work or the employer to conduct his business… is a simple extension of the right of one individual to contract with another for the exchange of property and services.

Unions in real life move beyond this and use coercive power that damages workers, business and society. With both the active and tacit support of the government this includes —

  • The union shop or compulsory unionism.
  • The automatic deduction of union dues from worker paychecks.
  • Picketing.
  • Personal threats, intimidation, assault and battery.
  • The violation of procedures contained in existing labour-management contracts.
  • Defense of casual and organized stealing.
  • Industrial sabotage.
  • Working to a rule that cripples the business… but legally is not a strike.
  • Secondary actions… the use of some or all of the above by one union against an unrelated business to "assist" another union.

Historically unions are the only organizations where the rules of law that apply to individuals and corporations were set aside. Socialists, liberals and compassionate do-gooders have all actively supported this in the mistaken belief that union immunity from the rule of law benefits society as a whole. From the point of view of economics and a civil society… nothing could be farther from the truth.

Bahamian examples.

Unfortunately, it is very easy to find recent examples of most of these in the Bahamas.

  • Angry workers assault the Prime Minister in public. No perpetrator is arrested and prosecuted.

  • As the downsizing of Batelco becomes an issue, a telephone cable is damaged and businesses dealing in world markets are left without telephones for several days. The perpetrators go undetected and unpunished.

  • Aircraft controllers work to rule causing aircraft to sit in holding areas for extended periods of time for no apparent aeronautical reason. Both airlines and passengers are damaged. The rule is not changed and no one is disciplined.

  • Charles Rolle, President of the BEC union, injects himself into a dispute before the Industrial Tribunal between the Bahamas Hotel Managerial Union and the Radisson Hotel. Mr. Rolle issued his "final warning" to government to resolve this problem or face the consequences. Will he follow up with more threats or will he resort to assault and battery, industrial sabotage, working to rule or picketing the Radisson Cable Beach Hotel?

The British example.

Great Britain was the first country of the industrial age and it retained its world dominance for a century. Why? According to Thomas Sowell, the eminent economist and news analyst,

"What the British had earlier than many other peoples was a framework of law and government that facilitated economic transactions… The evolution of the rule of law… not only helped promote the internal economic development of Britain itself… it helped attract to Britain… and more particularly to London… much of the commerce of Europe.

"Equally crucial was the erosion of government control over the specific terms and conditions of economic transactions. By the mid-nineteenth century there was widespread support for internal and international trade free from political control."

At the end of the nineteenth century the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. The Trade Dispute Act of 1906 conferred "upon a trade union a freedom from civil liability for the commission of even the most heinous wrong by the union or its servant. In short, it conferred upon every trade union a privilege and protection not possessed by any other person or body of persons, whether corporate or incorporate." (Friedrich Hayek)

Labour unions and the Labour Party ended Conservative rule at the end of World War II. They dominated politics until the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. The Thatcher revolution changed the legal framework supporting coercive union power.

  • 1980
    Secondary picketing was restricted and legal remedies were given to employees expelled from unions for refusing to join closed shops. New closed shops required an 80% approval by the workers in the bargaining unit.

  • 1982
    Union immunity from civil law suits was withdrawn and sympathy or secondary strikes were outlawed.

  • 1988
    All remaining legal protection for existing closed shops was abolished.

  • 1990
    The creation of new closed shops was outlawed. Union officials became responsible for unofficial strikes and the legal immunity for actions supporting unofficial strikes was withdrawn. Remaining secondary union actions were made illegal.

  • 1993
    The automatic deduction of union dues from salaries was made illegal without specific worker consent. Workers were given the right to join the union of choice.

As a result of the Thatcher Revolution Great Britain stopped being the economic laggard and became the economic leader of Western Europe. Union membership dropped from a peak of over 13 million in 1979 to 8 million in 1996. Real Gross Domestic Product per person in 1985 prices rose from $11,168 in 1981 to $15,726 in 1996. The curbing of excessive union power was a critical element to a revitalized Great Britain.

Great Britain is just one example… there is a mountain of other evidence. The bottom line is that militant trade unionism and coercive union power are inconsistent with vigorous economic growth and a civil society.

The Bahamas.

A country gets the society that it chooses. Citizens, businessmen and politicians collectively choose and their choice has economic consequences. In the case of industrial relations, the Bahamas chooses to live with coercive union power at a time when other countries already have moved away from this to their great benefit. Its current choices condemn the Bahamas to being a third world country. This is the reality that the unionists at Workers House did not perceive.

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