Sunday, January 12, 2014

Solidarity Forever, for the Union Makes us Strong.

Poor pay, poor conditions (dust, knee strain, etc.), no benefits! Where's my shop steward??
Today I'm disturbed by government efforts to shrink the influence of unions, part of an ongoing phenomenon in North America that you already know about if you watch the news. I'm disturbed because I just read Kathleen Monk's blog post on the subject, and if you don't have a lot of time, click on the link and read her post instead of this one.

My first job was as a lumber yard go-fer. I was told what I would be paid ($100/month, 1960) and my employment conditions were laid out for me. I went from that to working for the Bank of Montreal at a salary of $1200/yr., also laid on without my input. One day the accountant told me to go out and buy some new shirts because my frayed collars didn't look seemly for a business person. I couldn't afford shirts, even in the singular. From there I went on to Teachers' College and a teaching career, all of it as a member of a union. I served as a local president, was involved in negotiations of salaries and working conditions and as a result of past negotiations, enjoyed health benefits, sick leaves etc., that would have been unheard of at the B of M at the time. My wife and I now benefit from pensions that wouldn't have been ours had it not been for collective bargaining.

I don't have to go into the role of collective bargaining rights in freeing society from child labour practices, starvation take-it-or-leave-it pay, abominable working conditions, etc.; this should be common knowledge to anyone who paid attention in high school History. What the past has shown us is that commerce and industry leadership/ownership doesn't like to see employees having a say in their work lives; it compromises control, impinges on profits. If unions are being systematically weakened these days, we ought to check out who's cheering; it certainly isn't the burger flipper at McDonalds or the welder at a non-union shop, except . . .

. . . except that there's been a steady campaign of union demonization going on for years, so much so that even people who have benefited from the social improvements made through collective bargaining are bad-mouthing the hands that fed them. If a service like garbage collection is suspended by a strike, it's the union's fault; if the stoppage results from a lockout, it's also the union's fault for making unreasonable demands. Somehow, gouging corporations and businesses have won the public relations war, a sad phenomenon that unions will have to find better ways to counteract.

For me, the bottom line is this: the employer who invests and the employee who sweats are equals, humans in a world where racism, gender-ism, ageism, etc. are not permitted. That employees should have the right to sit across the table from employers and negotiate the conditions of work and their remuneration seems a human right that ought to be obvious, unless we insist that the world be organized vertically. 

It's noteworthy that as unions are losing their effectiveness—generally through legislation and bad press—inequality is increasing. 

The connection is obvious. 

Do read Kathleen Monk.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this George. We've just read Ari Shavit's My Promised Land and are now reading reading Buffalo Shout: Salmon Cry. The issues are really the same as the union issue. "We" want to have unquestioned power over the lives of others. We want to make "them" invisible except as "assets" that "we" can use. What is being done to workers is not different in kind from what was done to aboriginals by settler society, or that is being done to Palestinians by Israeli settlers. We don't have the financial resources to do the image-making that the big corporations with their "small-government" allies, but we do have social networks through which a statement can be made. Let's make it.