State of the Union: Part 1 of 2

7 Feb

Unions, in Canada and the world over, are facing perhaps their biggest battle of the last eighty-odd years. Not only are they fighting to protect workers against governments and employers (and government employers) armed with the powerful language of crisis and austerity, they are also doing it with very little sympathy or support from people who are not (consciously) involved in any meaningful way in their struggle. Indeed, unions have been downright demonized lately.

Seeing this, Trish Hennessy has called 2012 the year of “the unionbot”: the rise to dominance of a science-fictiony rendering of The Union as “an immutable, greedy beast” that “invades Planet Earth”. I think she’s hit the nail on the head, but in my view, there is also something more mythical (almost biblical) in the narrative emerging around both public and private-sector unions, most notably in recent months. I started writing this post thinking I would get us out from under the myths, break down the ideological barriers to sympathy and support, and write us all onto the same page.

I’m sorry to report that I’ve simply transported us from one impasse to another. Today’s post will culminate in that dead-end, but there will be a part 2 that asks how we can move beyond it.

The myths

Three myths seem to dominate the narrative that has us, today, at a ‘fateful moment’ of sorts, for unions. The first myth – one that governments and corporations alike have been using to their sole advantage, and that a disappointing number of ordinary Canadians have been quick to accept – is that these are just plain tough economic times, and public and private employers alike have no other choice but to cut labour costs to stay afloat.

Not only does this simply fall flat in the case of Caterpillar – which was turning record profits when it decided to close the London EMD plant – it’s also misleading in general. The “tough” part of the times we live in isn’t that money is just disappearing; it’s that money is concentrating in fewer and fewer hands. There are people and corporations, albeit in shrinking numbers, who are actually doing very well right now, in part because they’ve absorbed the money the rest of us have passively hemorrhaged over the last several decades.

From Snippits and Snappits - it’s not that they’re no longer reinvesting their money out of concern about the global economy. It’s that they’re investing elsewhere, in places where they can exploit workers by paying them far less while still turning out the same number of products. (“Exploit,” by the way, is absolutely not hyperbole in this case. It is a highly accurate way of describing what goes on when capital “flies” to other countries.)

A second myth relates to the kinds of workers who are, right now, on the front lines of a battle we will all face, sooner or later, if things don’t change. Specifically, every third internet commenter reminds others that these “unskilled” labourers, working for London’s EMD plant or Halifax’s Metro Transit, are making far more than minimum wage doing work that requires no skill or education. (From industrial sociology, we learn that the more appropriate term for this type of work in most cases is “de-skilled”: recognizing that work that was once done by hand or at least wasn’t fully mechanized is now helped along by machines to such an extent that the individual worker is, in some respects, dispensable, through no fault of their own.)

Even notwithstanding the last point, a day on a shop floor or in a public transit driver’s seat will confirm that “de-skilled” or “unskilled” jobs actually require a great deal of skill. Such jobs might not necessitate a post-secondary degree (so that’s what we’re really talking about here, isn’t it?), but then again neither do a lot of jobs we consider “skilled,” some of which pay exorbitantly. One need look no further than professional sports, modeling, or sales, or any of the work-your-way-up jobs in finance and business for those kinds of apparent breaches of the “low skill = low pay” law. But even in the absence of comparison, the work done in manufacturing, public works and resource extraction is hard on the body, it’s dangerous, it’s thankless, it can be loud and stinky and uncomfortable, the hours are shit, it’s dull and mind-numbing, and – oh yes, that’s right – it’s incredibly undervalued and stigmatized. And it should make us sick to think that our sympathy and support is reserved for people whose jobs are somehow more noble, because they “require” post-secondary education.

Beyond the myths, there are also a handful of tired old tropes that do nothing but obfuscate the real issues at the heart of the labour negotiations causing so much consternation in every corner. The only one I want to address here is that of the lazy union worker whose job protections make him impossible to fire. I’m sure we all know this guy. I’m not disputing his existence. But I am going to point out that he’s just one guy in most workplaces – ONE GUY – whose specter somehow eclipses the hundreds of other employees who can thank the union for their wages, their weekends, their lunchbreaks, their health plan, and their protection against arbitrary firing.

We know people are creative. They can be deceptive. They game systems. They are capable of finding ways to get what they want with minimal effort, and that is never going to change. But despite what the rational-choice economists might say, we are not all system-gamers all the time, nor is there much risk of all of us being that way, so long as we’re treated fairly and get some minimal intrinsic rewards from the job. The impossible-to-fire-unionized-worker, even if he shows up in every single workplace, is not a reason to dispense with unions altogether, just as the crooked cop is no reason to dismantle all police forces. Both provide protections we would be screwed without.

The morality

With those three barriers-to-an-actual-conversation out of the way, where do we find ourselves? The answer – you’ve been warned – is at an impasse.

In conversations with people I know, and in reading what people I don’t know have written or said publicly, only a tiny bit of nuance needs to be erased in order to see that there are, for all intents and purposes, two “sides”, with competing perspectives on the last several months’ labour struggles. On one side, there is the view that unions are “pricing themselves out of a job”, often combined with the argument that workers, particularly in the industries and jobs we devalue (i.e., every one but our own, it seems) should be thankful simply to have a job. The rationale is usually that there are other people who make less who would be willing and able to do a unionized job for minimum wage without any benefits. Therefore, the unionized worker is exhorted to concede whatever benefits s/he has. It’s a line of reasoning that comes from the same cold, shriveled place that incubates the basest viewpoints, like Toronto Councillor Doug Ford’s, that “nobody should have a job for life.”

Oddly, this set of views finds as much purchase with people who’ve benefited, either directly from public and private pensions, or indirectly from the early union struggles that gave us labour laws and time off, as it does with people who actually would do a job for minimum wage. From both groups, the message is that no worker should get, well, anything, beyond the privilege of going to a job. They might object to that, but ask them what workers do deserve, and that’s the answer you’ll get, once they strip away all of the benefits that appear to them to be superfluous.

As The Coast’s Tim Bousquet put it in a recent article about the Halifax bus drivers’ strike, this line of critique is music to employers’ ears, and it doesn’t do us any good either:

“These are such anti-labour times that an objection is often raised that amounts to: ‘I don’t get to pick my schedule, why should bus drivers get to pick theirs?’ But saying all benefits others receive that I don’t receive are unreasonable benefits is a loser’s game, ultimately leading to fewer benefits for everyone. That’s the sentiment management is appealing to.”

A slightly less common approach to playing the same “loser’s game” is to make unions out to be greedy and only in it for themselves. Particularly in the case of striking public workers, the argument is made that the union is insensitive to the inconvenienced public – indifferent to “the common good.” That point, I respectfully submit, is bull. It’s bull for so many reasons, not least of which being the fact that the greatest mass prosperity is only possible with a strong middle class. Again, Bousquet puts it better than I ever could, writing:

“our baser instincts [tell us] the path to personal prosperity is to impoverish everyone else. Quite the contrary is true: a securely employed, well-paid working class is the surest path to societal-wide prosperity. We must do better by each other, and better by our public employees.”

So while this is a moral position I’m taking here – that we should be inclined to raise each other up for our common humanity rather than knock each other down for our different vocations – it’s also factually in our better interests to protect middle class jobs; protecting middle class jobs, whether you like it or not, means extending middle class benefits and salaries to jobs you think you could do with your eyes closed.

The common ground

The foregoing litany of disagreements might suggest a complete absence of common ground, but I want to argue that there is widespread agreement about one significant thing. People who believe a unionized worker deserves job protections and wages far above subsistence level, and people who don’t, all accept that the profit motive is an inevitable part of free market capitalism, and that it rarely works in favour of the employee. Really, no matter what one’s take is on unions, one must accept that, in the economy as we know it, private companies are inevitably going to want to earn more money, and public employers are going to want to trim costs, which means they’ll both want to boost productivity. Their preferred method of doing so is to reduce the cost of labour.

We also agree that in a global economy, if it’s possible for capital to move somewhere where the labour costs are lower, with very few exceptions it will do it without blinking. As Jim Stanford puts it in his brilliant Economics for Everyone, “private employers do not hire workers as a public service. They employ people to produce something and sell it for a profit.” That’s what Caterpillar did and is doing, and it is not going to change.

Finally, we even agree that the individual worker is powerless when it comes to protecting his or her interests (making a living, having a vocation, avoiding the psychological and financial insecurity of precarious work) against those who own and control the workplace. Unionism is a direct response to this fact; as a movement, it recognizes that workers are only a force to be reckoned with collectively. I can’t think of a name for the other kind of response – the one that stems from thinking that unions have “outlived their use.” Passive acceptance, maybe? Exceptionalism? No matter what you call it, as David Macaray pointed out here, it’s a “dangerous” way of reacting to the logic of capitalism. As he writes,

“Without worker collectives and worker solidarity, the whole shebang would quickly devolve into “every man for himself,” which is precisely what corporations dream about when they go to sleep at night.”

From Snippits and Snappits:

This, I argue, is our final impasse: the schism between those who believe in solidarity across the working class (the 85% of Canadians who have to work for an employer to make a living) and those for whom self-defense is the noblest modus vivendi in an increasingly hostile world. The question for “us”, in the former group, is whether we can win enough of “them “over to turn the tide. The risk is that we’ll have to hit bottom before they believe it’s there.


3 Responses to “State of the Union: Part 1 of 2”

  1. David February 7, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

    Nicely said. The counter-intuitive propensity of working people to side with corporations and politicians in the pursuit of the gutting of decent paying jobs with benefits, pensions, and job security, and against collective bargaining and employment law protections is one of the great mysteries of our time, and the greatest victory of neoliberal movement. It’s a point of wrestled with myself on several occasions, not as eloquently as you (i.e.

    • elementalpresent February 7, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

      Thanks – and the post you linked to is excellent! I think “virtue” is probably a better way of articulating what I’ve called “noble”. It’s still maddening… and it is seemingly impossible to argue with, because it’s an opinion that needs no empirical grounding. I’m sharing your blog post on Facebook.

  2. R Burnett February 17, 2012 at 11:11 pm #

    More please!!
    As a Journeyman carpenter who works for large, industrial corporate employers (none of them unionized) I heaved a sigh of relief reading this. Finally someone who makes sense. My employers have created CLAC–Christian Labour Association of Canada which is an employers’ “union” which only serves to keep any real organizing efforts from being attempted. My wages are lower now than fifteen years ago and seniority and job security are nonexistent. Your words sum up for me what I have known for many, many years, but have not been able to articulate. Very well done!!
    I look forward to hearing about solutions next! And also to using your well thought out points during arguments in the lunch trailer with other uninformed and misguided Carpenters!
    Haha you rock!

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