Section 2: Engagement and Equity

October 28, 2015




Member engagement is about making sure all members feel included. This means it's vital that union stewards know who their members are, where they work and what they care about.

Unions across Canada and elsewhere are rediscovering the need to engage members to strengthen themselves and build the labour movement. Research conducted by the CLC has found that many union members think of their union as “the” union as opposed to “their” union. Stewards can help more members feel connected to their unions by improving their member engagement skills.

The goal is to have more members think of the union as their union – as an organization they are proud to be part of; as a place where they feel a sense of belonging; and as a group that shares similar values and acts to protect the interests of its members and the wider community.

Any union member can be part of the process of engaging others, but stewards play a central role in building welcoming, inclusive and connected locals. Cultivating ongoing member engagement is an important piece of the steward’s job.

WATCH: How can stewards foster member engagement? Hear from a range of union stewards

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We know what not to do when it comes to member engagement. In fact, most of us have lots of stories about what kinds of approaches don’t work. At best, these approaches can work in a pinch, or work once but not consistently. At worst, they leave us scratching our heads wondering where our members are.

Kevin Millsip, an engagement specialist and leadership trainer, has identified three ways that don’t always work out that well:

  1. The Fact’o’lanche: Overwhelming people with an avalanche of facts and figures – a Fact’o’lanche – does little to help them feel engaged
  2. The Park’n’bark: Yelling at people and telling them what to think, pointing out how they’re wrong to think what they think, won’t get you very far
  3. The Field of Dreams: Building an elaborate vision – for a project or a campaign – doesn’t always translate into engagement if it’s not starting with peoples’ actual needs. You can build it, but they may not come.

WATCH: Kevin talks about things not to do

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So, how do we “engage” our members? Good question. We have the secret sauce. And we’re giving it away for free.

It’s “Go, Listen and Build":

  • We go to where our members are
  • We listen to them
  • And we build our union with members in a partnership based on shared values

1. GO

We start by going to where our members are. We stop expecting them to come to us.

"Going" to where our members are means going to them, for real, in the real world. We need to reach out and connect with them "where they are", literally. If everyone hangs out at certain place after work, go there. If a lot of your members hang out at the same community centre, go there. If they're all on Facebook – then that is where you go to connect with them.

The important thing is to connect with our members where they work and where they play.

Where they work: We make sure we reach all our members in the workplace, across sites, and departments, and shifts. We know where our members are located, and how to reach them.

Where they play: If a lot of your members go bowling, then the bowling alley is a good place to do outreach and even build partnerships (perhaps by sponsoring a team?). If your members attend a particular place of worship, then perhaps co-sponsoring an event might be in order. If your members hang out at Tom Morton’s coffee shop, then doing outreach at Barluck’s coffee shop might not be the best idea.

Also, remember to find out what's on your members' minds so you can “go” to their concerns. Listen to them – at your meetings, using online surveys, social media, face-to-face, whatever – and then work on the issues that matter to them.

Addressing your members' concerns will always be one of the best ways to connect with them (or with anyone). Over time, we learn how to connect union issues to the concerns of our members – because we have shared values.

WATCH: Go to where your members are 

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There are usually two parts to a good conversation: speaking and listening. We don't always remember the second part.

This is why we've developed resources to help union members build their listening skills. When you're first talking to a member, remember that any one conversation is beginning of an unfolding process. Keep it friendly, open and casual – and brief. If conversation were an onion, this one is the first layer.

Tips on listening:

  • Go for the connection – not the pitch
  • Make eye contact, if appropriate – or use some other way to convey you are listening, either through sounds or body language
  • Listen to what is being said – not for what you want to hear
  • Don't respond, rebut or reject
  • Reflect back what you hear

WATCH: The importance of listening

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We build deeper relationships by connecting with members as people and discovering shared values. This creates a sense of belonging, which leads to solidarity and moves members into closer connection with their union.

In other words, we organize and educate together – and then we mobilize. The best way to build union power is to build a culture of connection, a strong base to engage into action.

WATCH: Build connection with your members

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Tips for Inclusive Member Engagement

Just as the workplace should reflect the changing face of society, so should our unions. More than any other organization, a union belongs to its members. This is why we must constantly work hard to include all of our members and reduce systemic barriers to participation.

Good organizers will assess whether your local union and the wider labour movement is really accessible and welcoming for the entire membership. If it isn't, talk about it and involve people in naming and addressing barriers.

Ask questions like:

  • Does our local leadership, from the stewards to the executive, reflect the make-up of the membership? If not, why not? Are we really listening to our members, connecting with them, and building with them?
  • Is diversity central to our operation – or an after-thought?
  • Do we welcome people from all communities and cultures? Do we welcome diverse points of view?
  • Don’t forget practical things like:
  • Do our local meetings occur at times when family responsibilities would make attendance impossible for some?
  • Do members have transportation?
  • Are your meetings accessible to members with disabilities?
  • Does our local provide translation services for those members who are more comfortable in their own language?
  • Does our local provide translation services for auditory or visually challenged members who may want to participate?

WATCH: Jen Huang, an organizer with the Toronto & York Region Labour Council

Jen asks if unions are speaking to the millions of Canadians who come from diverse, non-English, non-French, backgrounds. She reflects on her father-in-law's personal experience of not being engaged by his union. Was it because English wasn't his first language? Was it because he was racialized? Jen's talk raises good questions for all unions.

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Stewards have a duty to represent all members fairly. This means that a crucial part of the steward’s job is to be aware if members feel excluded, hurt or even oppressed at the workplace or in their union. 

Your members can experience these things in ways that are obvious and ways that are subtle. The barrier might be clear as day – or it might be something you hadn’t been aware of before. This is why stewards need to really know their members, and it’s why stewards should use an “equity lens” to view their workplaces and their unions.   

An equity and inclusion approach is based in solidarity, respect and a recognition of every person’s inherent worth. Adopting equity means addressing power imbalances, embracing our differences and developing ways to create powerful bonds of connection and solidarity in the face of inequity and systemic barriers. 

This can be complex, but your union is there to help. Most unions have people working on Equity or Human Rights. Check with them for relevant policies, information and supports.  

What is an equity lens?

An equity and inclusion lens (link to CAWI booklet) is a commitment to look for, see and support the actual level of diversity in our unions. It helps us determine whether our union – its activities, structure, committees and leadership – truly reflect our members’ diversity and their concerns. 

An equity approach aims to ensure that everyone has access to equal results and benefits. It treats everyone fairly by acknowledging their unique situation and addressing systemic barriers that people may face. 

Advancing equity helps stewards create more respectful and positive unions, and helps unions address issues that affect all workers in our workplaces. 

Tip: Ask yourself, “What’s below the surface?”

What happens on the surface of any given situation may not be the entire story. This is why our equity lens helps us see a little deeper and helps us see all the possible levels in a situation: the personal level, institutional level, or systemic level. Your equity lens will help you see the levels. 

The difference between equality and equity

Sometimes we think we are treating people equally – but we don’t notice that the end result isn’t actually fairness or justice. But when we consider equity as the outcome, rather than equality as the treatment, we might make different decisions. 

The image below demonstrates the difference when we apply an equity lens.  

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Image from CAWI-IVTF

In the picture on the left, everyone is treated the same way, or equally – each child gets their own box to stand on to see over the wall. But the result isn’t fair. So while there is equality in how they are treated, there is not justice in the outcome. 

The picture in the middle points to a better solution. See how the boxes are distributed differently depending on need. This changes things and produces an outcome that is equitable, even if the children are being treated differently. Now, all of them can see over the wall.

But here’s the kicker. There’s a third aspect to consider. Check out the picture on the right, where the systemic barrier – the wall – is removed. This makes it possible for everyone to watch the game unhindered. When the systemic barrier is removed, it’s a lot easier to create equity without the need for special supports. 

Unions advocate an equity approach because of the persistent presence of systemic discrimination in our society. 

Understanding systemic discrimination

Being aware of different types of discrimination – and how they persist – helps stewards make a difference in the lives of their members.  

Discrimination might be obvious or subtle, and it might stem from an individual’s behaviour or from a more complex cause. A member might feel excluded because of something somebody did – or didn’t do – to them personally. But a member can also experience discrimination caused by a more systemic reason. 

“Systemic” means the problematic behaviour exists at a broader level, for example as part of an organizational culture, or a wider social oppression, and not just because of a few individuals. 

Obviously, stewards can’t do the employer’s job and manage the workplace. However, creating an inclusive and positive union experience for all your members is good trade union practice. More than that, it’s a core union responsibility to represent all members fairly, and you can’t do this without being inclusive. 

Discrimination: Personal, Organizational, Systemic

An equity and inclusion approach asks stewards to remember that barriers can take place at various levels at the same time: at a personal level, at an organizational or institutional level, and at the level of social and economic systems.

•    Personal: An individual’s day-to-day experience of inclusion or exclusion, power or powerlessness, visibility or invisibility, privilege or abuse. Your members can face daily oppressions as they go about their daily lives. 

•    Organizational: Oppression can manifest in a more “organized” way in a workplace, whether it’s a company, institution or organization. 

•    Systemic: Inequality, power imbalances and privilege are maintained at the social level across political and economic systems. For individuals, this might play out in unequal access to education, social services, political influence and economic power and position. 

All of these combine to maintain exclusion and divide us as workers and members of the same community. Depending on who you are (your own “social location”), you might think of equity and inclusion as a way to understand someone’s differences or their experience. As a steward, this can help you do a better job of advocating for your member or addressing their concerns. 

Examples of systemic discrimination 

Understanding how inequities occur can be complex. Read below for some examples. Can you see how these issues are systemic, and broader than problems at the individual level?

•    Aboriginal workers often face racism and exclusion in the job market, and have to resist anti-indigenous sentiment across Canada. 

•    Lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirited, trans and queer (LGBTQ) workers often experience discrimination in the workplace. This can surface through hostility, unequal treatment, social isolation, homophobia, transphobia and even violence.

•    Workers of colour often face discrimination, prejudice and overt racism in the labour market. 

•    Women often face additional barriers because of race, disability, Aboriginal status, age, sexuality and gender identity and expression. They are often paid less than men. 

•    Young workers make up nearly a third of the population of Canada – and yet their interests are underrepresented in government and public policy decisions, even though they are twice as likely to be unemployed.

•    Workers with disabilities often face multiple struggles – living and thriving with their disability – and being properly accommodated in the job market. 

This might seem like a lot to keep in mind, but it’s really just about understanding where your members might be coming from or what they might have experienced. 

A central question is:

“Does your member feel discriminated against in the workplace or in this particular situation because of a systemic barrier, organizational practice or individual experience?” 

Workers from marginalized groups tend to experience these barriers disproportionately. This experience will inform what your members’ different concerns are and what the remedies might be. 

Engaging members, building equity

Unions make our workplaces fairer and more just when they apply this kind of equity lens. Remember, the main job of a union steward is to represent all your members fairly. You can only really do that when you know who your members are, when you know their challenges, struggles and triumphs. An equity lens helps our members see that our unions are vital and relevant to their lives. 

Using an equity lens helps us identify barriers that keep our members from achieving justice. The best way stewards can discover what the barriers might be is to talk to – and listen to – their members. 

For more on listening to our members, see the chapter on Member Engagement

Test yourself! Seven questions to help stewards apply an equity lens

These questions can help stewards tie everything together. As you begin to answer them, you will be on your way to addressing inequities in your workplace and building inclusion, solidarity and respect in their place.  

•    What is an equity lens? 

•    Why is an equity lens important?

•    How is equity different from equality?

•    What is the impact of these forms of oppression on the affected people? 

•    What is the impact on those people not directly affected?  

•    How is the workplace as a whole impacted systemic discrimination?

•    How is the union as a whole impacted by these forms of systemic discrimination? 

•    What is the role of the union in creating positive change? 

•    What is your role as a steward in creating positive change?

•    Do your local’s practices (meetings, communications, information sharing and leadership) move towards – or away from – inclusiveness?


Oppressions are social forces that rank people above or below one another. These divisions serve to exclude and marginalize individuals and groups. When groups are marginalized, inequality grows. Systemic barriers like racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism are examples of forms of oppression that prevent people coming together in solidarity. As union stewards, your role is to build solidarity. This makes combating oppression part of the job.

What would an anti-oppressive framework look like for a steward?

Oppression is about power. Anti-oppression is about balancing power. An anti-oppression approach helps stewards recognize that in all relationships, there exists power imbalances. We can all relate to that to one degree or another in the workplace. But workers from marginalized groups tend to experience these imbalances disproportionately, and this reality affects your members’ different concerns and what the remedies might be. Thinking in terms of anti-oppression helps you address any power imbalances that might exist. 

The CLC’s Equality Statement

Union solidarity is based on the principle that union members are equal and deserve mutual respect. As unionists, mutual respect, cooperation and understanding are our goals.

Behaviour that undermines the dignity or self-esteem of any individual or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment is inconsistent with the labour movement’s values and prevents us from working together to strengthen our movement.

Discriminatory speech or conduct which is racist, sexist, transphobic or homophobic hurts and divides us all, so too, does discrimination on the basis of disability, age, class, religion, language and ethnic origin.

Sometimes discrimination takes the form of harassment. Harassment means using real or perceived power to abuse, devalue or humiliate. Harassment is not a joke. The uneasiness and resentment it creates are not feelings that help us grow in solidarity.

Discrimination and harassment focus on characteristics that devalue differences. Such behaviours reduce our capacity to work together on shared concerns such as decent wages, safe working conditions, and justice in the workplace, society and in our unions.

The CLC’s policies and practices reflect our commitment to equality. This Convention is a harassment free zone to ensure that the dignity and equality of all sisters and brothers is respected. 


Note: The difference between harassment and discrimination

Sometimes discrimination takes the form of harassment. Harassment means using real or perceived power to abuse, devalue or humiliate someone else through communication that is verbal, written or online. Whereas one might hold thoughts that are discriminatory, harassment is the acting on those thoughts – at someone else’s expense. See the next chapter, Dealing With Harassment. 


WATCH: Stewards talk about the role stewards and unions play in fostering equity

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8: Dealing With Harassment 

As the CLC’s Equality Statement points out, discrimination can take the form of harassment, which is the “use of real or perceived power to abuse, devalue or humiliate.” 

Harassing behaviour is unwelcome, unwanted and uninvited; it may be expressed verbally or physically; it is usually coercive, and it can occur as a single incident or on a repeated basis. It comprises actions, attitudes, language or gestures which the harasser knows, or ought reasonably to know, are abusive, unwelcome and wrong.

Workplace harassment can come from management or from co-workers. However it presents itself, its purpose is the same: the expression of the perceived power of one person over another. 

As unionists, we would like to believe that harassment mostly comes from management towards an employee. However, studies have shown that in fact significant harassment exists between co-workers. This “horizontal hostility” creates a demoralizing, intimidating and poisoned work environment. 

Harassment damages the solidarity of the union membership. This makes it vital that the union steward lead by example and be able to communicate to the membership that harassment will not be tolerated.

WATCH: Experienced stewards talk about dealing with harassment

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What to do when a member complains of harassment

•    Take the complaint seriously. It takes a lot of courage to come forward with a complaint against either management or a co-worker. 

•    Speak calmly. Try to alleviate some of the tension the member is feeling. You may point out that you know discussing the incident(s) is uncomfortable for them. Assure them that harassment is not a personal matter but rather a widespread work problem and that the union takes it very seriously. 

•    Validate the member’s concern. If members feel they aren’t believed, they won’t come forward, allowing harassment to continue. 

•    Advise them to write it all down. Encourage the member to keep careful notes and to be as specific as possible. Tell them to record “who, what, when, where and how.” 

•    Be in solidarity. Assure the person who is being harassed that the union is fully behind them and that it will do everything possible to stop this behaviour.

How to take action when management is doing the harassing

This is probably the least complicated scenario for the union steward. 

After talking with the member who is being harassed, you, as steward, should meet with your local officers and/or members of the human rights or equality committee (if applicable). Explain the facts and ask that they arrange a meeting with the superior of the supervisor who is doing the harassing. Request that someone from the relevant committee accompany you to the meeting. This will provide you with a reliable witness to your meeting. It also shows management that the union takes these allegations very seriously and is strongly behind the person who is being harassed. 

Tell management that one of their supervisors is engaging in behaviour that could place the company in serious trouble. Name the supervisor involved but do not name the member. Often, a member will suffer further abuse when a supervisor knows that a complaint has been lodged. Inform management that if the supervisor's behaviour doesn't change the union will be forced to file a grievance.

How to take action when a co-worker does the harassing

This is always a difficult situation for any steward to deal with. Each union will have its own particular way of handling this, but below are some guidelines.

Your first obligation is to the one who is being harassed. This cuts across all lines of friendship. As a leader and union representative, all of your members must feel confident that they can come to you with their problems. 

If you receive a complaint, or if you see someone exhibiting abusive or harassing behaviour or actions, arrange to speak privately to the harasser. Be firm. Tell them that harassing behaviour will not be tolerated and that hurting someone else is not funny. Tell them also that if they continue harassing, they will be in serious trouble and that the union may not be able to defend them since harassment is illegal.

If there is no change in behaviour, you and the union must take further steps. 

Check your collective agreement 

Most collective agreements contain a “no discrimination” clause, where management ensures that the workplace will be free of all forms of discrimination and harassment. It might read something like, “It is agreed that there shall be no discrimination, interference, restriction, coercion, harassment, intimidation or stronger disciplinary action exercised or practiced with respect to an employee by reason of age, race, creed, colour, national origin, political or religious affiliation, sex, sexual orientation or membership or activity in the union.”

If your collective agreement contains a clause like this, then you would grieve management for allowing this situation to occur. If you do not have this clause, then you probably have one where management “ensures a healthy and safe environment,” which can also be used. Press your union to include a “no discrimination” clause, however, in the next round of negotiations. The stronger language of this clause sends a very clear message to all parties (management and workers alike) that discrimination of any sort will not be tolerated. 

If in doubt, consult with your union leadership and/or union staff representative for guidance. 

5 tips to fight harassment

1.    Be an example. Speak out against oppressive behaviour or “jokes” that undermine solidarity. 

2.    Educate your members. Work with your membership to explore the issues around oppression and harassment in formal and informal educational environments, from lunch-time discussions to workshops to trainings. 

3.    Communicate clearly. Tell your members that if anyone feels they have a problem, they can speak to you in complete confidence.

4.    Get help. Bring in experts on equity, inclusion and cross-cultural communications to lead trainings at your local.

5.    Recognize diversity as reality – and opportunity. Your members are diverse and include people from equity-seeking groups, including people of colour, people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer or transgendered, or members who have physical or mental disabilities. For more, see the chapter on Equity and Inclusion. 


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Chapter 9: Anti-Union Myths And How To Bust Them

Bust the myths!

Have you ever had that experience where someone is venting about unions, and you know they don’t really know what they’re talking about, and you wished you could reply with the perfect response? This is for you. 

Being a good steward means being a good listener. But, of course, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a good talker, too – especially when it comes to defending your members and countering myths and lies about unions. 

Union members hear trash-talk about unions all the time. It’s okay to talk back. Read our myth-busters below. And bust away! 

Myth #1. “Unions are strike happy.”

Unions negotiate for collective agreements – not strikes. No union wants a strike, but they are sometimes necessary when there is no other way to reach an agreement. To union members, a strike means sacrifice – for themselves and their families. Workers won't go on strike unless the issues involved are so great they are worth the sacrifice. Unions always conduct membership votes before taking strike action and a strike occurs only when it has been approved by a clear majority.

In collective bargaining, strikes are the exception rather than the rule. We repeat: the exception. About 97% of all union contracts are settled without a strike, but this fact never seems to make the headlines.  

But now that you mention it, unions also absolutely defend the right to strike. The right to withhold one’s labour in unison and agreement with fellow workers is crucial to maintaining a democratic society. As workers, we trade our labour in order to provide for ourselves and our families. If we do not have the right to withdraw those services, we no longer have anything with which to negotiate – and not much of a democracy, either. 

Myth #2. “Unions were good at one time but they have outlived their usefulness.”

The Toronto Globe and Mail made this argument on May 6, 1886! Now, over 125 years later, it is still one of the most common arguments against unions. Hmmm…

Without unions, in 1886 or now, how many Canadian workers would have been granted a decent wage or have leisure to enjoy it? You can't have prosperity or social justice when two-thirds of the people are broke. Thanks to the wage levels established by the labour movement, even unorganized and anti-union workers have benefits today.

Globalization and the growing power of big business makes unions more important than ever. Unions negotiate collective agreements and improve working conditions, wages and benefits – without unions, employers would treat workers however they want. 

Myth #3. “Unions protect people who should be fired.”

No union contract requires an employer to keep a worker who is lazy, incompetent or constantly absent or tardy. What the union does is make sure dismissals are for “just cause” – for real reasons – and not personality clashes between supervisors and employees.

Yes, employees can't be fired as they once were when they were considered not to be as useful or productive to their employer. Women who have a union can't suffer discrimination from their boss because the boss fears they may get pregnant, for example. In that way, unions do protect people's jobs. That's the purpose of a union.

Myth #4. “Unions are too big and powerful.”

Hah! Comparing “Big Unions” to “Big Corporations” and “Big Government” is a favourite trick of the media and other groups like the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. 

“Big” and “powerful” are relative terms. In actual fact, most Canadian unions are quite small, and together they represent less than 31% of the country's workforce. Even the largest unions, in terms of size and resources, pale by comparison with transnational corporations such as Domtar, Suncor Energy, Canadian Pacific or General Motors. 

In Canada, few politicians ever dare interfere with “free enterprise”. Business can set their prices, sell their products and throw their money into anything, from advertising to a new executive washroom, without supervision or restraint. Governments will usually give them money or tax breaks to do this.

But go figure: Politicians feel differently about unions. Unions require legal certification, formal backing from a majority of the workers they represent and a long, complicated legal process before they can call a strike. Governments intervene in strikes, force workers back to work, freeze salaries, reopen collective agreements and jail union leaders. Do you ever see governments try those tactics on companies?

Unions are made up of all kinds of people. They're human. They negotiate for what they can in a world dominated by business in which we all have ringside seats to the profiteering by oil companies, supermarket chains and banks. 

If unions were half as powerful as they are said to be, they would be able to organize millions more Canadian workers. They would be winning more of their strikes and increasing their members' wages and benefits a lot more than they actually are. 

Myth #5.  “Unions are always making unreasonable demands.”

What is a reasonable wage demand? One that meets the workers’ needs? One based on the employer’s ability to pay? One that’s tied to productivity? Or one that the business media thinks is responsible?

The fact is that nobody has yet devised a workable formula for determining wage increases that would be considered "reasonable" by the workers, by their employers, by the public, by the press and by the government. One group or another will always be unhappy.

Besides, most employers – except occasionally when in genuine financial stress – still refuse to open their books to union negotiators. Unions are thus denied access to the data on profits, productivity and labour costs they must have in order to formulate “reasonable” demands. The only alternative in our private enterprise society is for unions to go for as much as they think their members are entitled to. To some segments of our society, anything they try to negotiate is too much. 

Myth #6. “The public is not represented in – and is the innocent victim of – strikes by workers in the public sector.”

Public employees are exactly what their label implies. They are the public’s employees. They are our employees and when they go on strike they do so for the same reason employees in the private sector go on strike: because they are dissatisfied with the way we, through our elected representatives, are treating them.

The mandatory conciliation process, along with other legal rituals that must be followed before a legal strike can begin, are all imposed by government in the name of the public. Unions simply follow these rules.

The public, as an employer, really has no more right to claim immunity from strikes than any other employer who doesn't make an honest effort to treat their workers fairly. When governments refuse to bargain in good faith, unions representing public employees have no alternative but to exercise their right to strike, when their members vote for this action.

People who may be hurt or even just inconvenienced by public sector strikes should make an effort to look at other sides of the dispute to determine if workers' demands are justified. If they are justified, then public pressure should be directed at governments to offer fair settlements, rather than force unions out on strike because it might be politically convenient – or, once a strike is taken, impose “back-to-work” legislation or other strike-breaking laws.

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