Thursday, June 23, 2011

Summer Editorial Series – Part the First: Labour Pains

You’ll forgive me for checking out for summer by passing off my blithe-like, semi-informed opinion as news in this Guelph Beat space, but with one election down this year, another one on the go in October and the usual seasonal chill on big news, I find myself gasping. If the Feds can go on summer break a week and half after taking their seats on Parliament Hill, why can’t I? (Although I should add that if big news does break, The Dude will abide and cover it accordingly.)

But the big news everywhere last week was labour disruptions; Canada Post was locked out by management after a week and half of rolling strikes, and Air Canada’s service and sales staff walked out. These types of situations make people question the current status of the labour union in North America. In the harsh, almost heartless environment of 21st century corporate culture, some are asking the question, why do some employees represented by unions get perks and rights the average worker can only dream about, and what nerve do they have in wanting more?

Earlier this year, certain state governments in the United States believed that the solution to budget deficits was simple: eliminate collective bargaining. School teachers paid by the state will take what they get and be darn lucky for the privilege. I know Krusty the Klown once observed on one of his downward slides that, “Everywhere I go I see teachers driving Ferraris, [and] research scientists drinking champagne.” But in real life you’re more apt to see an American public school teacher riding on an actual horse to work before a Ferrari.

But in Canada, we are not immune to such anti-union fervour either. The outdoor workers strike in Toronto in 2009 had more people siding with the City of Toronto than it did with the workers, many of who were garbage men and women whose picket line meant no garbage pick-up for nearly a month in the middle of the summer. One might say conditions were ripe for animosity, but I won’t because that is a pun and puns are the lowest form of humour.

What’s not funny is that unions, once the salvation and inspiration for workers everywhere, are now being seen as an element of the elite. With the erosion of the manufacturing sector, unionized workers are now mostly relegated to the public sector, and if that didn’t make public sector workers an appealing target for scorn by the common man before, it most certainly does now. To said common man, public unions have protection, they have benefits, they have good wages, and they have some degree of job security. They have a lot of nerve wanting more.

Of course getting more is what all workers have strived to achieve through collective bargaining. Whether it was having the right to reasonable working hours and decent pay, or the securing more vacation time and better benefits, workers used to be united in pushing The Man for more perks and opportunities. Like in all things, the landscape between then and now has changed considerably, and now people seem content to complain about the unions that still exist and have influence rather than stepping up and demanding better for themselves.

It’s understandable why though. Trapped in a middle ground, people are on the one hand concerned that direction action in their place of work will result in their unemployment, and on the other hand there’s the fact that the conditions modern workers face rather pale in comparison to the conditions that drove workers to unionize in the first place. Still, it was about as easy then as it is now to get people to take the plunge and risk unionizing. But as they say: no risk, no reward. And perhaps if we have a problem with the rewards other people are receiving, we should be better prepared to take up certain risks to get just as good for ourselves.

So chew on that, I guess. Summer is officially here, and in the coming weeks look for more of my mindful meanderings, and for the latest news stuffs go to

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