I'm glad Toronto is finally getting back to work, but I can't help feeling that the whole exercise has put another nail in the union coffin.
By Ben Bull
Published August 04, 2009
Now that the Toronto municipal workers' strike is over, I am left to reflect on what we've learned from all this, and what to make of the role of unions today.
I should start with a little background. My political enlightenment began during Maggie Thatcher's reign in the UK. The chaos of the late 1970s and early '80s, when everyone from the bread delivery man to the coal miners hit the picket lines, still stands out in my mind.
My parents - die-hard conservatives - would regularly hurl expletives at the TV as pictures of delivery van blockages and stagnant slag heaps hit the nightly news. "Bloody layabouts," they would moan, "get back to work!"
Thatcher's stubborn stance and ultimate 'victory' over the strikers emboldened in me the sense that these Union outfits were out-of-date, archaic - unreasonable. And striking was just so - petty.
When I joined the workforce in my early 20s, I got my first sense of what union life was like. I signed on as a line worker at Rowntree Mackintosh in Castleford, West Yorkshire, stuffing Kit Kats into boxes.
I recall my first day orientation. 20 or so of us newbies were ushered into a second floor conference room where a perky young HR girlie was perched on a desk at the front, waiting to welcome us aboard.
"I hope you'll all be very happy here," she gushed, flashing us an easy smile. "If you have any problems at all, please don't hesitate to-"
"Thanks, Sally," interrupted a large roly-poly lady with a too-tight smock and a face like a sore thumb. "We'll take it from here."
As the HR Manager slunk from the room we watched her retreat in uncomfortable silence. The interrupting Union rep was joined by her equally sour-faced colleague and together they gave the girl the stink eye all the way out the door.
"We don't like to talk while Management's in the room," croaked rep #1 after the door clicked shut. "You never know."
The reps then proceeded to give us the run down on our 'entitlements' - regular breaks, safe working conditions, and so on - something I felt the HR girl could easily have done.
The HR lady was certainly more appealing. Her soft smile and earnest welcome had been replaced by the furtive glances and hoarse whispers of the union reps, one of whom appeared to be permanently gasping for air. "We don't trust management," she gasped, as her colleague picked at something on her chin. "Best stick with us."
I never had anything to complain about during my time at the plant. The work was dull and the days way too long, but the pay was OK - five pounds an hour for straightening Party Size Kits Kats - and the shifts were flexible.
As for the 'untrustworthy' Management, I ended up dating the HR girl for a while and well, she seemed pretty fair to me.
My next Union dues were deposited with CUPE, during my brief tenure as a nurse in Toronto. I recall chatting with the Union rep at St Joe's, about the crappy working conditions, pay, and looming prospect of a strike.
"What do you want me to do?" he snapped as I ended my run of complaints.
Well, you could start by earning your money...
Although my experience is somewhat limited, and my attitudes framed at an early age, I have never had any cause to modify my union disdain. Unions have always been useless to me.
That not true for everyone, of course. I recall chatting with a Union friendly friend of mine some time ago, who was having sick time trouble. His extended absence was clearly genuine - pity his boss didn't see it that way.
"My union sorted them out," my friend explained to me, after the situation was resolved. "They earned their dues".
In my own line of work I've had cause to observe the inner workings of unions. During one of my assignments with a government agency I was informed that the union staff - about 30 percent of the workforce - were not required to fill in timesheets.
"Why not?" I asked, noting that all other staff complied with this seemingly uncontentious practice.
"Because they're union," was the uninformative reply.
Recalling this story to a colleague the other day, I was given a run down of his own experience with a union-infiltrated client. Apparently his company had nearly had to postpone an expensively prepared meeting because the client's conference room dividers weren't properly drawn.
"Don't touch that!" a Union man had barked as his colleague started to slide the doors across. "We need to call facilities". The meeting room then stayed silent until the appropriate individual was brought in to remedy the matter.
My last union anecdote was relayed to me just a few weeks ago. As my friend and I discussed the auto industry bailout I asked him what he knew about his high school buddy's experiences working at the Ford Plant in Oakville.
"He does special model fittings," my friend explained. "A/C - things like that."
According to my friend this guy sat on a curb all day waiting for the next special order to roll down the line. He would read the paper and do the crossword until the van reached his spot, at which point he'd jump up, hook up his wires and return to his puzzle.
"Sometimes he'll walk up the line," my friend explained, "do a few vans in one go and take an hour off."
"How does he get away with it?" I asked.
My pro-union friends tell me that their reps provide useful representation when a worker gets into trouble. "They stand up for you," they'll say.
"Isn't that supposed to be HR's job?" I reply.
"Sure. But they work for management so they're not going to side with you, are they?"
Another refrain they offer is, "If it weren't for unions we'd still be working seven days a week."
Fair enough. Nobody can ever accuse union members of working too hard, but how much do union concessions ever trickle through to the rest of us, anyway? And what are unions pushing for today? Their political mouthpiece, the NDP, appears to be all but irrelevant now.
Where's our $10 minimum wage? Andrea? Jack? Our temporary workers' rights? Where are you on EI reform? What has the NDP done for me lately?
Progressive legislation aside, and I'm sure there must have been some, the useful role of unions needs to be balanced with their regressive tendency to divide the workforce - managers versus workers, non-union versus union - and their innate ability to create a sense of one way entitlement that appears to be so pervasive in some of the more unhealthy Union environments I've encountered.
But perhaps this is all just jealousy. I admit I like the idea of independent representation at work. And it would be nice not to have to work overtime. And a job for life would be great!
Then I remember the apathy and slow motion activity of the government departments I've visited. And I think about the Toronto strike, the daycare - canceled for my kid, the Centerville season's passes I can't use, the garbage that's stinking out my basement, the football floodlights the union workers switched off, and refuse to switch back on...and I realize I don't want to work like that.
What appears to me to be lacking today is an honest and up-to-date debate about the usefulness of unions. These days, unions appear to be generally accepted by the majority of the working population as either necessary, harmless, or, 'just the way things are'.
But at the same time their role appears to be diminishing. Just look at what's left of Britain's Union backbone...
I'm glad Toronto is finally getting back to work, but I can't help feeling that the whole exercise has put another nail in the union coffin. For me at least, they were already dead.
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