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.