The turn to binding arbitration has become routine in Canada’s labour movement. Just as the bosses and their governments now reflexively push for anti-strike “back-to-work” legislation as soon as a strike threatens to become effective, union leaders have become increasingly quick to call for binding arbitration. Both anti-strike legislation and binding arbitration have the same result: getting workers off the picket line and back to work, taking away their power to make major decisions over their lives and putting it in the hands of backroom lawyers.
A look at recent labour disputes across Canada shows how prevalent binding arbitration has become. The most high-profile recent example was the CP Rail lockout, when Teamsters leaders agreed to return to work and accept binding arbitration after the federal government threatened back-to-work legislation. In Nova Scotia, the union representing striking professors and librarians at Université Sainte-Anne asked for binding arbitration in April to end a work stoppage that had lasted six weeks. In Ontario, OPSEU leaders called off a college faculty strike that had been scheduled to begin Mar. 18, 2022 after agreeing to binding arbitration.
Under binding arbitration, labour disputes are sent to a supposedly “neutral” party who hears the case of both sides. The arbitrator then makes a decision on what will happen to workers’ wages, benefits, and working conditions which is legally binding.
Workers should oppose binding arbitration—both as a matter of principle and because it doesn’t work, at least not for rank-and-file workers. In principle, binding arbitration is a total violation of workers’ democratic right to decide their own contract. Rather than a dispute based on free negotiation between workers and employers, binding arbitration sends the dispute to a group of lawyers—the union’s lawyer, the bosses’ lawyer, the lawyer serving as a “neutral” arbitrator—to decide what is a “fair” deal.
Overwhelmingly, these lawyers and bureaucrats end up siding with the boss. As Fightback has previously written:
Arbitration is not neutral at all and is based on the labour laws and standards of the capitalist system. In the majority of cases arbitrators side with the bosses, rather than the workers… [A]rbitrators may feel compelled to give a percent here or there, but at the end of the day, arbitration is a way for bosses to get their employees off the picket lines and back to work, while their lives are determined by faceless lawyers and bureaucrats.
For Marxists material conditions determine consciousness. Union leaders who make six-figure salaries and receive a range of other benefits unavailable to the rank-and-file will tend to adopt a different mindset from those they represent. The bribery scandal involving former Unifor leader Jerry Dias is an example of how union bureaucrats can make considerable money from corruption, of both the legal and illegal variety. Labour bureaucrats who are doing well for themselves compared to the average union member have little incentive to rock the boat. For workers facing attacks, threatening to strike and following through when necessary is the only way they can defend their wages and benefits. But for these labour misleaders, strikes are disruptive to their otherwise comfortable existence and they have every reason not to fight.
For this reason, union bureaucrats often turn to binding arbitration. This reflex flows from the outlook of class collaboration, which became dominant among unions particularly in the postwar era. In this period of booming capitalism, employers could afford to throw a few crumbs to their workforce. Today, however, the context of labour struggles is very different. Today, capitalism is mired in crisis and demands cuts. The only way to stop cuts and attacks from the bosses and win real gains for workers is through collective struggle.
A wave of recent strikes in the United States offer clear evidence for this view. In April, Minneapolis teachers went on strike for the first time in 50 years and won concessions from the school district around all their demands. In March, several hundred Kellogg’s workers in Kansas City won wage increases of more than 15 per cent after going on strike for nearly three months. Last year, more than 10,000 John Deere workers in five states went on strike for a month and won 10 per cent raises and improved benefits. Would workers have won these gains if they hadn’t gone on strike and instead turned to binding arbitration? The question answers itself. In order to fight back and win, workers must be willing to strike.
There is a danger we may be interpreted in an ultra-left fashion. Let us be clear: no one wants to strike. No worker wants to sacrifice wages and stand on picket lines for days, weeks, or months with no guarantee of success. But what happens when the boss is cutting your wages, pensions, and benefits? What happens when inflation is eroding your standard of living? If workers’ leaders signal that they are not prepared to fight under any conditions, bosses will happily slash wages and benefits and conditions for working people will continue to get worse and worse.
As the old adage says: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” But when labour leaders suggest they will not fight under any conditions, workers will steadily lose all the gains they won in the past—gains that were won, we remind our readers, through bitter struggle. Bosses did not give concessions such as the weekend, the eight-hour work day, the minimum wage, an end to child labour, and so on out of the goodness of their hearts. They did so because workers fought for these things; because workers were willing to resort to the only tool we have to defend ourselves, our ability to withhold our labour-power.
No threat is credible unless one is willing to back it up with action. Nobody wants to strike, but we must be prepared to if necessary. If workers are not willing to strike, we can expect nothing but cuts and attacks. Weakness invites aggression. The very logic of capitalism means that employers will exploit workers and take advantage wherever they can to maximize profits. There is no middle ground when workers and bosses have mutually antagonistic interests. This is not a question of being “reasonable”. It is a question of power—the power of the workers versus the power of the bosses.
Of course, strikes do not happen overnight. We need to have discussions in the labour movement and encourage fellow workers to take ownership over their own unions, workplaces, and strike action. A successful strike begins when workers see that the only way to stop attacks on working conditions is to go on strike; then debate and democratically accept this course of action.
Transparency and accountability are key to workers’ democracy, which means open bargaining in strikes and lockouts. Let the workers know what is being discussed between union and employer, and let the workers decide! That means letting workers sit in on bargaining if there is enough space. It means union negotiators writing regular reports on what is being discussed and bringing it back to membership meetings. Rank-and-file union members have the right to grill their representatives on a regular basis and to vote on whether or not to hold the line.
The success of striking U.S. workers in winning higher wages points the way forward. To fight back against attacks and the erosion of living standards through inflation, we need to reject binding arbitration and revive the militant labour traditions of the past. Workers should not sign off on binding arbitration, and union leaders must stop proposing and supporting binding arbitration as a way of disorganizing struggle.
The fight for better wages and working conditions is ultimately a fight against capitalism itself. Binding arbitration disarms workers in that fight. The only way to improve workers’ standard of living is through class struggle, and the only way to make those improvements permanent is to fight for the transformation of society—to fight for socialism. Rejecting binding arbitration is the first step workers must take to renew that fight and win.