Some of my younger readers may not realize this, but when I was a kid growing up in British Columbia in the 1950s, there was a holiday at the end of the summer called "Labour Day" on which Canadians celebrated the vast contribution of working people to the past, present and future of our great country.
Unions, groups of working people who pooled their modest individual strength to bargain collectively and ensure that a fair share of the great wealth they created ended up in the hands of ordinary families, would sometimes gather for picnics on this holiday, which was tinged with true patriotism, and sing songs.
One of those songs, a particular favourite in those long-ago days, went like this: "It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade; Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid; Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made; But the union makes us strong...."
Well, those days are gone -- the part about "but the union makes us strong," anyway -- and I can almost hear many of you, dear readers, silently mouthing "Thank God!"
Today, our Tea Party of Canada government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper is dedicated to signing "trade agreements" that ensure high-paying Canadian jobs are exported as quickly as possible to more efficient foreign jurisdictions, such as China, the role of public education is well on its way to being outsourced to corporate shills, and the final long weekend of our short Canadian summer is devoted to what might be called the Twenty-four Hour Hate, a day-long frenzy of official and media sponsored loathing for the weakened vestiges of the labour movement.
Oddly enough, though, this occasion is still known as "Labour Day."
And so it is that, here in Alberta, today we celebrate Labour Day 2012 (the year that, ironically under the circumstances, marks the centenary of the foundation of the Alberta Federation of Labour) not only with the traditional publication in the media of "studies" by right-wing think tanks that "prove" how we'd all be better off if there were no unions, no pensions and no public health care, but with a new poll that purports to show everyone is in agreement that unions are at best an irrelevant anachronism, at worst a menace.
OK, enough sarcasm... You may have seen a reference to this poll in the media, though. Indeed, if you are one of the few Albertans remaining who still gets your news from the print media or its online offshoots, you could hardly avoid it. The opinion survey was conducted by Leger Marketing for a group called the Merit Contractors Association, which describes itself as "the voice of open shop construction in Alberta."
The poll purports to show, in the words of Merit President Stephen Kushner, that "today's workers want ... more flexibility and freedom of choice in whether they should be part of a union and compelled to financially contribute to all union activities."
These answers were elicited from Leger's self-selected online sample of 501 respondents by asking questions clearly designed to make unions look bad, thereby leading respondents to the obvious "correct" conclusions about how to deal with that badness. In this regard, it would be fair to call Leger's misleading conclusions the results of a push-poll, designed to produce the desired responses, and not a legitimate measure of pubic opinion.
It is easy, for example, to get poll respondents to say they support "transparency" of union finances -- a position for which an argument can be made.
Likewise, though, I can guarantee you that it would be similarly easy to get like results in a poll asking about the benefits of financial transparency for governments, private corporations doing business with the public, public and private employers during negotiations, far-right "think tanks" and, just for one more example, non-union construction employers' lobby groups. A good argument can be made for these points as well -- one that would naturally prompt a certain degree of disagreement from all of these groups.
Similarly, I could use push-poll questions like Leger's to elicit responses that would let me confidently state that a majority of Canadians, including members of management, support a ban on corporate political donations and an end to charitable status for corporate think tanks that engage in constant political advocacy. Yadda-yadda.
Be that as it may, the Merit Contractors are virulently anti-union smaller construction firms that get together to pool their strength and lobby collectively (you know, like a union) for laws that would make it much more difficult for unions to organize Merit employees and represent union members effectively, and as a necessary sideline to persuade the public that this is a good idea.
Merit's website shows a weird picture of a guy wearing a construction helmet with a baby strapped to his chest, possibly a hint of some upcoming Merit campaign against child labour laws. Who knows? It is to be hoped profoundly that the guy in the picture is related to the baby, and that he's not holding a hammer in his hand.
At any rate, for all their rhetoric about "choice," "freedom" and "mandatory union dues," not to mention their alleged concern for the rights of working people, I think it's fair to say that Merit members' principal interests in this are avoiding the inconvenience of dealing with unions generally and more specifically finding a way to compete with larger, often more successful unionized contractors.
If they can recast their competitive struggles as a fight for "worker rights," and see the imposition of legislation that also makes it harder for their chief competitors to operate as they do now, perhaps they can increase they market share.
So there is little merit, as it were, it complaining about Merit's constant anti-union yammering. This would be an effort akin to politely asking your dog to stop yapping when the postman comes to the door.
Likewise, there's not much to gain in attacking the Fraser (so-called) Institute's preposterous faith-based claims everything's better with anti-union cotton-belt-style "right to work" legislation in place when, as Antonia Zerbisias put it in an excellent Toronto Star column yesterday, "the evidence is just about bulletproof: When union membership thrives, so does the middle class."
On the other hand, Leger's role in conducting this push poll and its assistance with Merit's efforts to publicize it is more troubling since, at least up to now, the company had a reputation as a serious polling firm.
I wonder if Leger would be interested in doing a parallel -- and methodologically similar -- poll on how many Albertans (including, say, management employees) support the full disclosure of company financial information, especially during union negotiations? They might also ask how many Albertans want their tax dollars to subsidize excessive contracts with private companies, large executive bonuses and severance payments, or any advertising, including glossy corporate and government brochures.
You get the idea. Probably almost all of Leger's respondents would agree with the conclusions suggested by my questions too -- assuming they're worded much like those in the Merit push poll.
Of course, it might be little harder to generate all the nice uncritical publicity enjoyed by the Merit Contractors in the Calgary Herald if you were publishing a dubious push-poll that didn't mesh so nicely with the Herald's decision-makers' own opinions and their recent history of ugly labour relations.
Oh well, never mind. Later today, from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the Edmonton and District Labour Council will hold its annual Labour Day picnic at Giovanni Caboto Park. Rain or shine, this popular event will attract a huge throng of Edmonton's many unemployed and working poor citizens, hardship that stubbornly persists despite Alberta's seeming economic prosperity.
My guess is that most Canadians, polled about this informal annual charitable effort by unions and their members, would strongly approve.
I wonder what they would say if they knew the proposals pushed by the Merit Contractors and their ilk would make it illegal?
Happy Labour Day!
Rabble.ca, Mon Sept 3 2012
Byline: David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.