Teacher strikes in Chicago, work-action by teachers in Ontario, strike-banning and wage-freeze legislation in Ontario, imminent strikes in Ontario's auto sector, austerity, right-to-work proposals in Ontario, and in practice in many states—what do we make of it all?

It's hard to think critically and carefully about strikes. Typically, the response to a strike is rather simple: are you for it, or against it? And, it's often personal: are you with us, or against us? But how would one even go about deciding if you are for or against a strike?

Strikes and lockouts are actions taken by a given party (unions or employers, whether private or public) to enforce their will on the other party through the use of power to achieve a desired end. That power is exerted either through the withholding of labour (a strike, initiated by the union), or through the withholding of work (a lockout, initiated by the employer).

Does that sound familiar? If you're thinking this sound remarkably like one of Clausewitz's definitions of war—"the continuation of politics by other means"—then you're right. Strikes and lockouts are the continuation of labour negotiations by other means.

Thinking of strikes in this way is a helpful tool, because, as with political disputes, it helps us place economic disputes into a context where questions about justice can be asked. If one wants to determine a position on the propriety of strikes, we are forced to ask ourselves: is this a just strike? What criteria can we enlist to answer this question?

I've found it helpful to transpose just war criteria into labour relations terms. Here is a short—albeit imperfect—list which I've found useful in thinking about strikes.

Jus ad Inflictum

  1. Legitimate authority. A strike is only just if it is called by the union, within the laws of the land, and within its own rules. Thus, wildcat strikes, or strikes which are made outside of the structures and rules of an authority (the union or the state), are unjust.
  2. Just cause. Strikes must be waged in response to a particularly egregious proposal or action which will damage either party. Mere discomfort should not be enough.
  3. Right intention. Strikes must be waged to right a wrong. Any strike which is waged with the intent of "getting back" at the other party is not just.
  4. Probability of success. A strike which is, on balance, unlikely to affect the change the union desires is not a just strike.
  5. Proportionality. A union must consider the effects that their strike will have on the wider public. This is particularly helpful when thinking of strikes by public servants such as teachers. Will the damage to the public be proportional to the good achieved?


Additionally, it's helpful to note that there are rules which should govern action within strikes themselves. The criteria fall under the category of:


Jus in Infligo

  1. Obedience to the laws of the land. Boundaries set out by political authorities must be respected, violence is strictly prohibited, and officers of the law are respected and obeyed if they instruct within the law.
  2. Proportionality. Labour must only withhold its labour. It may not engage in subterfuge or sabotage by other means in order to enforce its will. This, of course, does not preclude unions from mounting aggressive media or information campaigns.
  3. Discrimination. Labour should focus, as much as possible, on enforcing its will on the employer, not on those who are not directly affected. As with war, there will be "collateral damage" (i.e. traffic is slowed, some services slowed, or withheld), but these should not be pursued intentionally.


All of these criteria assume that, as Robert Joustra noted in his recent review, there must be a just peace. It is not enough to repay a wrong with another—the action must be aimed at a solution in which not only justice is achieved, but where justice in understood in the terms set out by the Book of Common Prayer:


[T]here is no strife among those who are engaged in the varied tasks of industry and commerce . . . That all, seek only what is right . . . [and] continue in brotherly union and concord, to their own well-being and the good of their fellow men.