Toe to toe over organized labour

Point: Вen Li


     What would you do if a highly-vocal and disruptive group of people bent on spreading hatred and disdain towards another group arrived in your city? Edmontonians welcomed them with open arms in August as the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees bussed in members from all around Alberta to demonstrate in front of the Prime Minister’s speaking engagement.

It is interesting that we generally tolerate and applaud this type of detrimental behaviour from public servants and other labour unions (nurses, teachers, pilots, transit workers, etc.), while similar acts by a racial pride movement or the Mafia would almost certainly draw ire from the public at large. But why does society and its laws view disruptive ("stunting," if you will) union strikers and hate groups–both breaking the law under the guise of freedom of speech–unequally?

We have a preconceived notion that whatever a labour union does to further its influence and control is necessarily good, or at least tolerable. After all, we all have at least one steelworker friend who apparently welds things using a photocopier, cash register, or ketchup bottle, and we wouldn’t want to go against our friends, would we?

Perhaps we have such a favourable opinion of labour unions because of the many good things they’ve done for us. In the past year, transit unions from Calgary and Vancouver have helped inject millions into their economies through local taxi commissions. Out east, alternative and traditional American health care providers have flourished because unionized nurses refused to treat cancer patients. And there’s the incalculable boon to the local establishments in St. John from Memorial University students who were denied the opportunity to learn for a few months by striking teaching assistants.

Of course unions have brought efficiency to businesses worldwide. Where would we be if unions didn’t continue to push for revolutionary labour standards pertaining to 19th century manufacturing techniques? Surely, letting most of our businesses and factories sit idle for more than half the day is good for the construction trade.

Labour supporters would say the role of unions has changed since their creation, from establishing workers’ rights to more of a wage advocacy role. But how does that make sense?

A full-time worker earning $15 an hour who gets $50 a week in strike pay loses $550 per week. With a 20 per cent wage increase (good luck getting that), she or he would have to work a month for every week she or he was on strike to break even for the effort. While a three month strike gets the attention of management or the government and embitters some segment of the public for a short time, workers are in the red for nearly a year.

Union bosses make good decisions about wages, public safety and are kind, caring people. But remember: Governments don’t endanger patients’ lives, harm kids’ education, or annoy passengers, strikers do.

CounterpointЕvan Osentоn


     Labour Day is a Canadian invention–and even more shocking–it used to be more than simply a day to watch low-grade Canadian Football League clashes. Until recently, Labour Day recognized the unappreciated working-class, for whom a day off near the end of summer was a novelty. This was a holiday for nurses, welders, bus drivers, teachers and meat-packers; these were, and still are, the people who form Canada’s backbone. Yet organized labour, and especially the right to strike, has come under attack following a summer of labour unrest across the country. In recognition of this year’s holiday, it’s worth pointing out that unions–and strikes–have never been more relevant.

Union opponents such as the factually-challenged Fraser Institute trot the same tired anti-labour arguments out every few years, "proofs" rife with statistical manipulation and carefully selective memory. For example, they love to claim non-union companies post 10 per cent higher growth than their unionized counterparts, but fail to mention non-unionized company’s higher turnover rates, not to mention more days lost to "sickness," disloyalty, depression or injury. How can they "forget" these incalculably-high costs?

Also, unions typically thrive in established industries less prone to giant growth spurts, such as logging or auto manufacturing, whereas the trendy high-tech community is largely non-unionized. It’s not like labour’s opponents are comparing apples to apples, but don’t wait for them to point this out.

Really, union sympathizers have defeated the same tired arguments for generations. In reference to all the unrest this year, consider that strikes typically occur in less than five per cent of contract negotiations, and even when they do, both sides must share partial blame for any inconvenience caused. Corporate-owned media sometimes forgets to mention that companies have all kinds of leverage over employees. If employees can’t legally threaten to withhold their services, there is no onus on a company to compromise. Strikes are not only usually legal, but last-resort measures, done for reasons of principle. The very fact strikers stand to lose money by striking is testament to the nobility of their cause.

While anti-labour types stagnate, spending millions fruitlessly "union-busting," unions are busy changing to address the needs of a modern workforce. In their thirst for profit, companies often ignore workplace discrimination, racism and safety. Unions put the kind of pressure on companies to reform that one woman, one visually-impaired person or one immigrant might not be able to do alone.

Women still make an average of 80 cents for every dollar a man earns, and raising women’s salaries to a level equal to men costs money that shareholders don’t want to spend. Unions are in the thick of the battle for pay equity.

Thought minimum wage was safe? Think again. Minimum wage is under attack in the U.S., especially by the fast-food industry, and George W. Bush is all ears. If minimum wage is abolished in the States, it won’t be long before Canadian businesses cry foul and lobby to abolish it here.

Workplace safety is also in jeopardy as a result of cutbacks such as those to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the U.S. and it’s the equivalent in Canada.

Last year, U.S. labour unions posted their largest membership gain in 20 years, in spite of a current political climate that suggests "unions retard profitability." Technically speaking, human labour will always negatively affect profitability, for weak, frail human beings require dignity, equality, benefits, sick days and workplace safety. Admittedly, these are great expenses for a company, but who will work without them?

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