The Attack on Workers: Back(sliding) (in)to the Future

The public response to recent labour disputes has been a disturbing sideshow to the return of Parliament. What’s remarkable is the level of nastiness that gets tossed around, littered with references to “union stooges” and the ubiquitous “socialist dinosaurs.”

Perhaps the most obvious line of attack is based on a backdrop of selfishness—“I don’t have benefits/vacation/job security, so why should they?”

It is an argument borne of misplaced resentment. The understandable anger at an increasingly stratified society is being directed not at the handful of people who are benefiting handsomely from an increasingly unfair and unequal economy, but rather at those individuals and organizations trying to make that same economic system a little less unfair for themselves and eventually for others.

As a strategy, though, it’s completely backwards: rather than resenting unionized workers for what they have achieved, doesn’t it make more sense to say: “what great benefits—I would like to have them too” (or maybe, “I would like my kids to have those opportunities, even if I don’t”)? Isn’t that how we improve living and working conditions for all of us?

I don’t understand the apparently pervasive rationale that unless everyone (or at least the person doing the complaining) has these rights, no one should. How does that guarantee any kind of social progress? Do we reject social improvements out of sympathy for those who didn’t benefit from them? Or do we initiate social progress by creating examples of good policy and practice to which we all collectively work to aspire? Like, for example, paid maternity leave—which many of us now have as a direct result of the postal workers’ fight for that benefit in the 80s.

If the founders of Medicare thought that establishing public health care would be unfair to those who grew up without it, where would we be today?

But there’s also another theme that’s been percolating on message boards (following news stories about what has become a full-fledged lockout of postal workers by Canada Post, and the recent tabling of back-to-work legislation by the federal government)—one deeply rooted in elitism and adherence to a rigid class system.

“What makes them think they deserve more?” “You only need a grade 6 education to do their job.” “Why should unskilled labour get paid $50,000 a year?”

Funny, isn’t it, how people claim to respect those who do “an honest day’s work.” Yet when that “honest day’s work” comes with decent wages, benefits, vacation days, a pension and job security—you know, if it’s unionized—suddenly those same hardworking folks are “coddled,” their work somehow not so “honest” anymore.

Workers are universally loved (or at least they get some rhetorical “props”) when they’re downtrodden…but the moment they have the gall to look beyond their “place,” they’re met with a wave of righteous indignation: who do they think they are, anyway?

“They think they work harder than you and me,” someone responded on facebook when I voiced my support for postal workers. “Well, maybe they do,” I said. I’m certainly not out there every day carrying upwards of 35 lbs of mail for hours at a time, trudging through Ottawa streets in minus 40 winters and plus 40 summers, and dealing with the realities of a job that has the second-highest rate of work-related injuries in the federal sector.

The implication is that some jobs (and the people who do them) just aren’t deserving of a good wage, security, or safe working conditions. Times are tight (for working people, though not for CEOs), they have a job, and that should be enough for them. Living wages are for slackers, and unions have to get with the times.

Really? So this is the new definition of progress: household debt is at record levels and working people (particularly the younger ones who are just entering the job market) are told they have to do more and expect less while paying off student loans, raising families, and caring for aging parents.

Ironically, in resisting this so-called “new reality” for their current and future members (and more broadly, for society) unions are painted as obstructionist and out of touch. But it’s our increasingly stratified system—the one so many people, against even their own best interests, tie themselves into knots defending—that’s truly untenable.

14 comments

  1. I wonder if what the unions need to do is get out and tell their stories in between the big strikes. That way the issue will be about people and not money. As long as unions are primarily connected with getting more money the average person won’t have much sympathy.

  2. I have worked in unionized and non-union positions, as a self employed contractor and in a professional organization. The only time I had a voice as an employee, that extended beyond my immediate supervisor, was when I was unionized. With that voice I fought for wages and benefits but I also fought for human rights, social justice and universal social programming. I don’t always agree with every decision every union makes, but we would not have the society or freedoms we currently enjoy without them.

  3. I am a very left wing person. Actually, I consider myself a sort of neo-socialist. I am both sympathetic and frustrated with the argument above that the working poor should support the striking postal workers. I support unions, I support the right to collective bargaining, I support the postal workers. But I myself have never had a union job. For most of my working life, which is going on 20 years now, I have made less than $10 per hour working part-time temporary jobs. My dad has literally broken his back working for shit wages in highly dangerous conditions. My family is white and we rent in the suburbs because we can no longer afford to live in Vancouver, the city our family has lived in for generations. The argument above is an old one. It basically says the working poor should support union workers because our real enemy is the capitalist class that exploits us and we should be happy that union workers have something that we don’t have and maybe some of the rights and wages they enjoy will spill over to us. It’s almost a left wing version of the trickle down theory so loved by neoliberals. There’s no denying that labour unions have historically brought about improvements for workers generally: minimum wages, 40-hour work week, weekends, safety standards, etc. So that’s why I support union workers. But on the other hand, I feel like when will there be a movement for people like me? I sit by and support strike after strike, year after year. But our working conditions in the non-union world only get worse. You begin to lose patience. You begin to start to want to put your own needs first. I really feel that there is no hope for us at this point. No matter what happens in the labour movement, high paying jobs will never again be plentiful, governments will never again build public housing en masse for the working class, we will never be able to return to our home city. We are condemned to lifetimes of poverty, debt, physical marginalization on the edge of the metro region. And there is no language or movement in which to talk about our plight because we are white and non-immigrant. Marginalized white people sounds like a contradiction in terms. I feel at this point our only hope is for a full scale break down with capitalism, a massive crisis that capitalism never recovers from. This may offer the potential to rebuild society on more egalitarian grounds. So maybe the labour movement is just slowing down the progression to this inevitable crisis point. Maybe we’ll get to the critical crisis point quicker if the ranks of the poor continue to grow. Maybe the last vestiges of the welfare state and workers rights that remain today are holding back this descent into crisis. Maybe virtually the entire working class, union and non-union alike, needs to reach the point of absolute destitution before things get better. I do actually think this is true. We need poverty on a massive scale before things will start to turn around. Otherwise union workers will never really experience the poverty I am talking about and will never really understand what it’s like for us. We need the class solidarity that comes from having everyone being poor. And we need the ruling class to start to really notice that purchasing power is down in the society because nobody can afford anything because nobody has any money. I am just tired of always supporting the movements of other people. I’m waiting for my social movement.

  4. You have got it right. People defending the erosion of salaries and benefits need to understand that 95% of us make no more money now than 20 years ago corrected for inflation. Following their plan will make most of us poorer. Instead they should demand that governments work to make the middle class richer through getting at least the same share of the pie we got 20 years ago instead of all the increase going to the upper 5% and wealthy corporations.

  5. I really enjoyed this article. I have been having the same thoughts myself and have been quite confused about why workers seem to be turning on each other instead of on the greedy corporate oppressors. I was raised working class, have been on welfare, and am now highly educated and relatively privileged. My brother’s still on assistance and my dad’s still really working class so I’m still connected with those struggles. I have to say that I also really appreciate bbbeeboy’s take on things. I really hope that we can avoid pushing more people into suffering in the hopes that it’ll hasten the collapse of capitalism. My own view is that the less people that suffer, the better. What we need to do is work to extend union rights to all, including the working class. And, we need to acknowledge working class struggles and perhaps the middle class needs to do a better job of being more inclusive in that sense. Great article, very articulate.

  6. Further to bbbeeboy’s comments, i worked non-union at a unionised factory. the factory is now in Eastern Europe. i am working for half the wages with no equivalent jobs because they are all in Eastern Europe, China, Mexico, or Brazil. But my total combined taxes keep going up as a percentage, the cost of postage goes up while my disposable income goes down. It is not a case of, beggar my neighbour but i can’t afford to keep you in the style in which you want to be kept. Yes, it would be wonderful if the top capitalists decided to share but they won’t without the fight described by bbbeeboy.

  7. bbbeeboy, I sympathize with you, but you can do more than waiting for your own social movement. In all the low-paying jobs you have worked, have you ever contacting a union about trying to get the workplace organized? These things don’t happen spontaneously.

  8. Have you ever been a part of an organizing drive,and experience the vigorous battle from capitalist employers. I am a proud member of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, as some say the union that brought you maternity leave. We have done such organizing and still have major battles with our rural unit the RSMC’s at Canada Post. One thing this government and the Mulroney Government of the past hates about our union is that we have always battled for those less fortunate. Do some research dig into our constitution, before you judge who you think we are. After saying all that, i am in total agreement with the article and was just commenting on some of the comments.Solidarity to all workers!

  9. In my long life I have been a union member and not. Once as a postie.

    I have noticed that there is a piece of the argument missing. For most of my life I have seen unions isolate themselves from the wider society and it’s problems, while aggressively trying to get a larger piece of the pie.

    I don’t fault them for trying to get more for their members. I do fault them for giving up the original struggle to change the social/political system that created them.

    If they want wider support, they need to stop whining about what they’re losing, and start supporting a wider demand for structural change, so they can once again become the agents of change that they started as.

    As in political parties, they need to find some principles to support, instead of promoting a platform designed to recruit new members.

    Or, in the case of the TTC, using the public as a weapon against government; and then wondering why nobody supports them.

    It’s time to break the old patterns and create something new. Time to return to the original principles that gave rise to unions in the first place.

  10. The main question or conflict is not about the creation of wealth but its distribution.

    In a capitalist democracy the concentration of wealth continues at a vary pace.

    Right now it is moving rapidly in favour of the elite (bourgeoisie).

    Organized labour in co-operation with community allies is the only force strong enough to resist this corporate agenda.

    The bureaucratic union leadership has not yet made the decision to call for illegal strikes to confront this assault.

    If the Tim Hudak Conservatives are elected with a majority in ON on Oct. 6 they may then make that necessary decision.

  11. Why most people don’t vote for the party(-ies?) that would advance their interests (as contrasted with the fat cats who are running our world these days) is a mystery. Why do people seem to trust folks in nice suits who seem rich more than folks like themselves? Why are the resentments against “rich” union workers so acute while CEO’s who really are rich are just ignored — or admired? Just asking.

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