Let’s Talk Unions (A Lefty Perspective)

On June 27, the Canadian Government legislated the members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) to return to work after a rotating strike followed by a lockout by Canada Post. The terms in the legislation were less than the terms Canada Post had last offered the CUPW, which the union had rejected. Though those whose businesses depend on an efficient postal service will be happy, the fact that the government interfered with negotiations between an employer and its employees, and appeared to simply be punishing the CUPW for striking (when in fact it was the employer (Canada Post) and not the postal workers who were responsible for the total cessation of mail delivery) doesn’t sit well with me.

It is this that caused me to join in a lively discussion/argument about the postal strike. Of course, as soon as anyone starts to talk about any given union, all unions are soon thrown into the mix and the recent actions taken by the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation were ripped apart, because “teachers get two months off in the summer.” Being the child of Saskatchewan teachers, and knowing how hard my parents work (good teaching is so much more than just “stand and deliver” repetition of the textbook), I stood my ground for as long as I could (it was mostly a two against one debate and I was the solo party).

The fact is, I don’t have many facts, either about the recent postal strike or about the situation facing the STF. What I do know is that many unionized workers, for example teachers and nurses, care very deeply about those they work for (children and patients, respectively), and that striking is a last resort that weighs heavily on the conscience of the striker.

The argument allowed me a chance to engage with people whose views and experiences are very different from my own. Both of my main “opponents” worked in the oil industry at demanding and dangerous jobs. Both had been seriously injured on the job and both “sucked it up and went back to work”. Too much pride for WCB, apparently. Given the risks involved in their job and their 60-70 hour work weeks, I am not surprised that they expressed a lack of sympathy for workers who appeared to be doing less and asking for more. There was also some hypothesis that if oil workers were unionized and the government was in charge of the industry, we’d all be paying $3/litre for gasoline.

I am familiar with the above positions and though they aren’t my cup of tea they’re nothing I haven’t heard before. While it was actually quite an enjoyable debate with fairly civil “opponents”, I was understandably frustrated and there are a few fallacies within their arguments I would like to address:

  1. That there is some particular virtue to not being part of a union, and to just keeping your head down and doing your job without complaining. – Just because you do not want to demand more from your employer (i.e. you won’t file with the WCB when you’re injured), it does not mean that other people should not have a right to, or that they are weak or wrong to do so. Contrary to being a virtue, the only people you are benefiting by refusing to demand better treatment in your workplace are your employers; you, your loved ones, and your coworkers certainly aren’t any better off for it.
  2. That the position of unions are that their employees deserve good treatment because their employees are “better” than other employees, or work harder. – I have not yet seen this to be true. The position of the STF certainly isn’t that teachers work harder than everyone else, and therefore deserve more. Clearly, teaching isn’t as dangerous or as physically intense as working in the oil industry up in Fort MacMurray. The STF isn’t pretending it is. The point of a union is that employees should be treated well by their employer. This means all employees (regardless of whether they are unionized) deserve job security, vacation, and pensions. The fact that some employees are unionized allows them to demand this better treatment. A demand for better treatment by a union is not a snub to other workers.
  3. That unionizing means putting your business or industry under government control. – While many unionized workers are employed in the public sector, unionized employees and government employees are not one and the same. An example would be auto workers unions, strong labour unions whose members are employed by large corporations like Ford or General Motors, not the government. To the idea brought up of $3/litre gas resulting from unionizing and government control of the oil industry, firstly, unionizing of oil workers would not necessarily result in government control of the industry, and secondly, Tony Clement has recently told media that the Government will be working to lower the lately inflated gas prices (even without ownership of any oil companies). I highly doubt that oil companies currently have any interest at all in keeping prices (and profits) low.

Being a teachers’ daughter, and current member of a CUPE local myself, I do realize that my point of view comes from a very specific place. I do understand that not everyone feels they are in a position to make demands to their employer, especially if doing so could lose them their job (a job they may desperately need to support themselves and their families). What I am saying is that this is a shitty state of affairs. No one should be afraid to speak up about mistreatment in the workplace. Keeping employees in fear and living on a meager salary that does not allow them the freedom to better their position or enjoy their life amounts to servitude, not employment.

Despite this, I do not believe every worker should be part of a union, or that every business needs to be unionized. A business owner or employer who takes good care of their employees, providing decent salaries and benefits, and incentives for their employees to invest in their own retirement, should not need to unionize their employees to ensure this happens. I have seen small businesses that treat their employees like family, giving them flexibility, security, and a level of personal attention not often seen in larger businesses. Sadly, these employers are few and far between, and there are many corporations and industries more interested in their bottom line than in the well-being of the people whose work allows them to maintain a profit (i.e., their employees).

I also cannot say that I have supported every union strike I’ve ever read about in the media. The optics of some of the unions’ demands compared to the realities facing many Canadian families (and my own unemployed status) during the recession, for example, were not very beneficial to the profile of unions in Canada. This does not mean I do not support unions as an employment structure or their right to demand what they believe is fair for their members.

For many, myself included, discussions surrounding labour unions tend to be emotional, rather than intellectual. Those within them defend them fiercely, those who are not unionized disparage them. The difference, as it often is in politics, stems from different ideas of what people see as fair. I have no answers, and so far in my career have not been faced with many tough decisions. I’m just full of piss and vinegar and I do love to sink my teeth into a good argument every once in a while.

If anyone has some cold hard facts for me, from either side of this debate, I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, I guess I’ll just try to be pleased that I’ll be getting mail again (yay!), despite the actions that brought it about.

2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Unions (A Lefty Perspective)

  1. Hi Lauren,
    Your blog about unions has gotten me stirred up because I’m so tired of people, who don’t understand politics or teaching, putting down unions and teachers.
    About your 2 oil patch guys–so macho and proud about going to work hurt and working 60-70 hour work weeks. I don’t know if I’d be bragging about that. You’re being taken for a sucker buddy. Where will your oil company be in 10 years when you’re disabled or too ill to do that physical work anymore, or when you have a family and can’t work those 70 hour work weeks anymore? Do you think the way you’re working is sustainable over a 35 year span before retirement?
    Besides which, why should they complain about teachers’ salaries when they seem to be making a lot more than teachers already. I see a lot of young guys around the Lloydminster area buying houses, big trucks, campers, fancy boats, quads, and all the other toys and they’re still in their 20s. No young teacher could even dream about buying all that. Don’t forget that teachers are usually coming out of 5 years of univ. with big student loan debts to pay off and starting salaries much smaller than a lot of other professionals of similar training. And though living costs in Sask. are now similar to Alberta’s (ie. housing), teachers salaries in Sask are quite a bit lower than in Alberta. So the STF strike was mostly about trying to narrow that gap between living expenses and salaries and between teachers and other professionals of equal skill and training. It’s only because teachers work for the public and have to ask the public for a pay increase that people make a big deal about it.
    As for the amount of work teachers do, I’m sick of that 6 hours a day for 10 months bullshit. Most people know it’s not true but don’t want to admit it. How do they think lessons get planned every period of every day and homework and tests get marked, by some kind of miracle?! I calculated my hours of work in my last 5 years of teaching and it came to more than 2300 hours/year. Even though I got the holidays in summer, Christmas, and Easter, which by the way is one main reason people can stay in this profession. Otherwise why would anyone put in so many hours at such stressful work? I worked at planning and marking most evenings, most Sunday afternoons, and started preparing for the new year at least by the 3rd week in August, much earlier if I was teaching any new courses or new curricula. Notice that I have NOT counted any extracurricular hours which were between 150 and 200 hours every single year. How does my 2300 hours compare with the average 40 hour work week? For 49 weeks of work (that allows for 3 weeks of holidays at summer and Christmas, which is pretty average), that comes to only 1960 hours.

    Now about unions in general. First of all, what’s this confusion about whether a company is government owned and whether it has a union. Those are 2 completely separate things. But anyway, no one says that all or even most companies should be unionized and/or publicly owned, but in a healthy mixed economy some should be. Most businesses and services should be run by business organizations, but not all should be. Services that should definitely not be run by corporations are schools, hospitals, prisons, social service agencies, etc. The states has tried this and the results have been a lot of corruption and poor service, but big profits for shady owners. Government isn’t the best at running businesses but at least it’s more closely scrutinized than corporations and when the wrong-doing gets publicized, as it always does sooner or later, we can throw the bums out. (ex. the Liberal Party after the sponsorship scandal.) In contrast, the chief executives of the American banks whose greed and unregulated and fraudulent risk taking caused the 2008 -2011 recession walked away with multi million dollar salaries, huge severance packages, and no loss of income, no prision time, no personal accountability.
    Meanwhile, there are some very good crown corporations in every country and province. SaskTel, for example, is often listed as one of the top 50 or 100 companies to work for in Canada. There are also a lot of very poorly managed and inefficient large corporations, including big oil companies, we just don’t hear about it as much. (Ex. BP which was responsible for the biggest ever oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico). Ask those oil company employees if they don’t see a lot of waste and inefficiency in the oil companies.
    Corporations, and their political fans, who want to destroy unions want to create a desperate working class that will work under any conditions for whatever wages they can get and not complain too much for fear of losing a job. I wonder how long workers’ wages would keep up with inflation if there were no unions in this country. Unions are in many ways responsible for the high standard of living we enjoy in the western world. Their demands for higher wages and good working conditions have created a large, comfortable middle class, with the time and money to go out and buy houses, cars, and all the stuff that stimulates and grows our economy. Whether or not you belong to a union you are benefitting from the balance unions bring to the political game. If corporations get all the power, everyone, including those 2 oil patch guys in your poltical discussion will be worse off and then we’ll all be sorry.
    Non-union workers should not let themselves become pawns in the corporate power grab, taking the bosses side against their fellow workers. Those bosses are making millions of dollars. Are public union employees at post offices, schools, hospitals, fire stations, making too much money compared to them?
    A good economy has to have checks and balances to continue being healthy and fair for the greatest number of people. Unions provide a balance to corporations, and regulations, if they are fair and properly enforced, protect us all. Right wing propaganda doesn’t want people to remember this because right wing propaganda serves the interests of the corporate world.
    Thanks for perservering with this longer than expected rant. And thanks for your support and sticking up for our side.

  2. Pingback: Stop whining about the teachers, start shouting about your government | niftynotcool

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