In Wisconsin the Governor has stripped public workers of the right to collective bargaining. Tellingly, he exempted those unions that supported him during the election. The rhetoric south of the border has reached such a peak that one deputy attorney general floated the idea of using live ammunition on protesters. "You're damn right I advocate deadly force," he frothed.
In Canada the mood is less lethal but an anti-union wind is blowing. The city of Toronto has petitioned to remove the right to strike from transit workers. The measure ignores the fact that the union has walked out a grand total of 75 days since 1921, but newly elected Mayor Rob Ford says this is only the start when it comes to laying down the law to city employees.
Free market cultists rejoice in these developments. They've waited decades for the right circumstances to marshal their forces against organized labour. Now they make the case that our economic troubles stem not from bad fiscal policy or the chicanery of the financial sector, it's the average working man who is to blame.
They complain that unionized workers make more than their non-unionized colleagues, which is a bit like being astonished that pasteurized milk has less bacteria than the raw stuff.
In a column entitled "Why the Public Sector is Hanging on For All It's Worth" (March 6), Terence Corcoran crows that Canada's private-sector workers don't want unions, pointing out that organizing efforts at Walmart and Toyota have failed. He omits that Walmart shuttered a profitable Quebec outlet as a means of staving off a pro-union vote, while Toyota workers coast on the wages and benefits hard won by the CAW at the Big Three.
Corcoran and others may present more persuasive arguments when it comes to public sector workers except that as Kelly McParland has pointed out in "Unions and Government, a Happy Marriage that Benefits Both" (March 2), the packages politicians decry as overly generous were eagerly dispensed by their own vote-hungry hands.
Governments at all levels claim the larder is bare, forgetting always that they themselves emptied it with ill-considered tax cuts and wasteful spending. Wisconsin was actually in surplus when its union-bashing governor came to power in January 2011, but Scott Walker gave 117% of it away to business in the form of tax cuts. In other cases governments looted the very same pension plans they now say cannot be sustained.
There was a time where lifting up the collective standard of living was a shared and worthy endeavour. Men and women did a day's labour in a safe working environment and enjoyed protection from the capriciousness of their supervisors. In return they earned enough to buy a home, a car, raise a family, take a vacation and enjoy a few years retirement before they died.
But as more and more people slip into economic hardship the new attitude is "if I'm going to barely scrape by why should anyone have it better?" This collective foul mood is manna to grandstanding politicians and indignant businesspeople who have always regarded unions as a type of shakedown operation. Never mind that according to CAW records 98% of collective agreements are concluded without a strike.
Critics claim that unions have outlived their mandate. Children no longer toil in factories and seamstresses aren't burned alive in firetraps. But the union movement didn't just seek to lift people above the status of interchangeable and disposable mules; the intention has always been to use collective power to obtain a portion of wealth that represents the genuine value of labour.
Unions and the working man didn't create the financial meltdown. They didn't invent and market worthless financial instruments. They didn't swindle pension funds or blow up the housing market. They didn't hack away at revenues to the point where government can no longer supply basic services. In short, unions didn't create the dire economic circumstances now being used to justify a wholesale attack on their very existence.
Let elected officials surrender their pensions. Perhaps it's the spoiled brats of Wall Street - whose six figure bonuses have been paid from government funds - who need to wake up to the new economic reality.
The upside to the anti-union endgame is that it may lead to a resurgence of labour solidarity. The sharks may be circling, but they will always be outnumbered by the fish.
National Post, Mon Mar 14 2011
John Moore is host of Moore in the Morning on Newstalk 1010 AM Toronto. Outside of southern Ontario he can be heard at Newstalk1010.com.