Top Ten Moments in Labour Relations (h/t @Buzzfeed)

Winnipeg General Strike, 1919

Winnipeg General Strike, 1919

Yeah, OK. So sometimes I go for the cheap clicks. Sue me. Who am I to argue with a successful formula?

Ben Hur – Row well, and live

Jack Hawkins susses out Chuck Heston in less than a minute — and then lays down the law. As the uppity employee, Chuck gets a quick lesson in shop-floor culture, and how to maintain his focus.

Ten Commandments – Blood makes poor mortar

Chuck had the chops. Here, as a manager, he displays a pragmatic approach to workplace conflict, and finds a way to combine compassionate leadership with efficient use of resources.

Blazing Saddles – Give us a song

It’s not clear whether this is a union shop, but as a de facto leader, Cleavon Little finds a way to motivate his comrades and keep up morale in the face of unenlightened and clueless managers.

On the Waterfront – John Friendly, come out of there

In spite of it all, I’ll allow that unions, even though they’re democratic institutions, can occasionally become unresponsive or fail to advance their members’ interests. Here, Marlon Brando and Lee J. Cobb demonstrate the proper way to hold union leadership to account.

Game of Thrones – It is done

Sooner or later, any workplace will have to adjust to new ownership and / or new management. Some adjustments are more successful than others; the key, always, is attitude and open-mindedness.

Mutiny on the Bounty – He’s been drinking sea water, sir

As this exchange between Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard illustrates, conflicts aren’t necessarily limited to management versus staff. Sometimes, the lines of communication between middle managers and executives become strained. While this may be an extreme example, it can happen in any workplace. (Also, judging from Trevor Howard’s smile, this company didn’t have much of a dental plan.)

Swimming with Sharks – You. Have. No. Brain.

As Kevin Spacey shows, effective managers take the time to ensure that new employees are properly oriented and understand their roles, and that the expectations of them are clearly spelled out.

A Christmas Carol – You’ll want the whole day off tomorrow, I suppose

Sometimes managers can be decent and compassionate of their own accord, but wouldn’t you rather not have to gamble on it? If it’s a choice between an organized workforce or visits from spirits, well, I know which way I’d go.

Glengarry Glen Ross – Third prize is you’re fired

Bullying. Intimidation. Unhealthy competition. Unrealistic performance expectations. A toxic work environment. Alec Baldwin may believe he’s got the key to motivating the staff here, but really, would you want this guy for a boss? Guy needs to dance with Bucky Dornster.

WKRP in Cincinnati – I’ll join the union if you can tell me where Jimmy Hoffa is

OK, I got nothing here. Les Nessman was always the intellectual heart of the show, and goddamnit, he’s got a point here.

Related posts:

Reviving #ThePublicGood, part 6: Government is not a business | #TOpoli #onpoli #cdnpoli

adam smith

One of the most persistent memes in the project of governance is the suggestion that government should be run like a business. Market and private-sector fetishists are nothing new, of course, and they’ve got big bucks behind them. I’ve cited the Fraser Institute previously, of course, so no need to focus on them any longer than absolutely necessary, but they’re hardly alone. There’s the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, and a whole suppurating cesspool of yargle-barglers dedicated to advancing the decomposing meme about Letting the Market Decide. (You’ll note I’m not providing links. Let ’em get their own clicks.)

Once again, let’s go back to first principles. What is A Market? Pardon me for recycling my own wankery, but:

A market is one of the many varieties of systems, institutions, procedures, social relations and infrastructures whereby parties engage in exchange. While parties may exchange goods and services by barter, most markets rely on sellers offering their goods or services (including labor) in exchange for money from buyers. It can be said that a market is the process by which the prices of goods and services are established.

We’ll just set aside, for now, the artificiality of the market as a social construct, never mind the hypocrisy displayed by so many market fundamentalists, and just focus on — yes, that’s right — the public good.

Markets may be good at some things. But, it says here, they’re not so shit-hot at meeting human needs, ensuring living wages and decent benefits, or functioning as the underpinnings of healthy communities. This shouldn’t be a surprise, really, when you consider some of the underlying assumptions — specifically those about rational self-interest, maximizing one’s own benefit, etc. Not to mention the assumption that private actors indulging their greed will inevitably produce the greatest good for the greatest number.

Again, let’s make our own biases clear.

When people place self-interest above all, ignore the rules of civilized behaviour, and don’t give a shit about anyone else, we call them sociopathic. When international investment vehicles and corporations act that way, they’re just maximizing shareholder value and reacting to “The Market.”

Not enough time or space to list here all the dislocations, upheaval, damage, and human cost of our inexplicable decades of deference to “The Market,” so let’s move on and ask why it is that its adherents seem to have such a chubby for The Private Sector.

Perhaps it can start with one of my favourite piles of Zombie Bullshit: the private sector is inherently more efficient because of the profit motive. Forget about evidence for a moment; let’s just unpack some of the assumptions in here: what do the market fundamentalists mean by efficiency? Is it a question of generating greater returns with fewer inputs? Or does it perhaps mean arbitrarily devaluing some of those inputs for ideological reasons? Human labour, for example?

Sure, you can max out your profit margin if you can get away with paying people next to nothing and treating them like shit. Make union organizers disappear the way they’ve been doing in Colombia. Use the TFW program to create a permanent disadvantaged and terrified underclass of people too frightened to assert their rights or stand up for themselves, and then piss all over Canadian citizens for lacking a proper work ethic.

Let’s be clear: the continuing private-sector fetish makes it easier to rationalize the reduction of human beings to mere economic inputs, easier to throw away like used kleenex when they’re no longer useful or profitable. Not that that has anything to do with certain special-interest groups’ (cough, CFIB, cough) hard-on for temporary foreign workers and hatred for unions. Or the so-called Right to Work legislation that Tim Hudak may or may not introduce in Ontario, depending on the breaks. Or the decades-long race to the bottom via so-called “free trade” and the voluntary surrender of myriad policy tools for the sake of “investor confidence.” The agenda is obvious — progressive enfeeblement and eventual destruction of the public sector, and the public sphere as such.

Once again, let’s exercise our critical-thinking skills. Who benefits from this? Let’s just set aside, for the moment, all the market-fundamentalist, private-sector-fetishizing cant, and ask ourselves: who’s profiting from all this? The people whose jobs are disappearing? The public sphere that’s increasingly stripped of resources? The communities left without the means to see to the needs of their citizens? The public infrastructure that’s being privatized and/or left to fall apart?

What if, ultimately, meeting human and community needs isn’t profitable? Should they just be blown off?

Again, back to basics. The function of government is not to make a profit, but to Cultivate the Public Good. It is there precisely because doing so is not profitable.

And this, more than anything, is why we must get the language of the business school out of the project of governance — it’s perversion. Infection, even. Remember the lesson about discourse and winning back the words? When we allow others to force us to think and talk in their terms, when we let them define the discursive turf, we’ve allowed them to capture and colonize the whole public sphere. We’re working with their alien ideas, their values, and their assumptions. It’s no wonder we’re at a disadvantage.

Well, fuck that. This is not the private sector. The language of business is utterly inappropriate for governance. Government is there to provide for human and community needs, not to make a profit or enhance the brand or service customers or generate shareholder value. The requirement that public agencies and offices should have to have a fucking “business plan” is an obscenity. If you like the private sector so much, then go back there and leave government to people who understand and are committed to its role in advancing the public good.

Related posts:

@Cityslikr, @NickKouvalis, and more on controlling the narrative: the runup to 2014 | #TOpoli


Well, another week, another messy and avoidable scandal in Ford’s Toronto. 

The whole reading-while-driving thing is getting tired by now, of course. Yeah, it was fun (in the way that only reckless endangerment of others can be fun), but it was also predictable, and while it’s pretty easy to follow the arc these things take, way things are going, there’s sure to be another embarrassment before long. 

I’ve been meaning to set this out for several days, ever since an impromptu late-night beer with Daren prompted a couple of synaptic twitches. A couple of events have brought things into what passes for sharper focus among guys our age in the interim, so … a few observations on the state of politics in Toronto, circa late summer 2012.

The advent of private waste collection west of Yonge Street earlier this month brought one of Daren’s typically trenchant and well-written observations: in short, he argues that Rob Ford’s political future depends, in large part, on garbage. Amid much smirking and triumphalist chicken-dancing from some of Ford Nation’s er, “brighter lights,” Team Ford has delivered a giant FU to the city unions, following through on one of the currents of resentment it tapped in its successful election campaign in the fall of 2010. Take that, lazy overpaid socialist union thugs! End of the line for this gravy train!

While this provides an undeniable emotional jones for the union-haters, the jury’s still out on whether it’ll amount to more effective and efficient delivery of service, and in a larger sense, whether it will play out in terms of better overall municipal governance. That the private operator’s had some settling-in difficulties is a matter of record; Daren argues, quite reasonably, that while it’s only fair to cut GFL a little slack, Team Ford’s success will be judged, in large part, on whether the contracting out actually saves millions of dollars without any reductions in service. This is what Rob Ford ran on, after all. 

We’ve been told, guaranteed actually, that the contracting out of waste collection to Green For Life will save us $11 million annually with no reduction in the service provided. That is the benchmark privatizing proponents gave us. That is the goal that must be met. I will argue that the mayor’s ‘mandate’ depends on it.

The Tweetr (that is what the young folk are calling it these days, yes?) being what it is, it wasn’t long before a lively discussion ensued. A full and frank exchange of views, I think they call it. My respect for the people involved is also a matter of record, but part of what prompted the segue from that to this was the participation of our friend Nick Kouvalis.

Full disclosure here: notwithstanding the way he’s regarded in some circles at City Hall, my thinking is pretty similar to Daren’s when it comes to Nick. As Daren puts it:

Although I’ve never actually met Nick Kouvalis and, in all likelihood, oppose almost everything he purports to stand for in terms of governance, I think I just might admire like fear… what’s the word, I’m looking for here?… respect? Hmmm. Grudgingly respect him? OK. He’s a guy I’d like to sit down and have a beer and shoot the shit with. What’s the word for that?

What Daren said. Dude passes my beer test too. The guy’s good at what he does, if you define success in terms of electoral results (more on that in a minute). We don’t have to like or agree with what he does, but he’s got insights we can learn from, and I’ll say this for him: on the occasions I’ve engaged with him, he’s answered directly and candidly. Whatever else I may think of him, I have to acknowledge the straight answer instead of the bullshit smokescreen. 

Again: disagree with the man, but respect his effectiveness and don’t let the disagreement turn into scorched-earth hatred. (That may say more about my bourgeois naiveté — er, my lingering nostalgia for civility and old-style conservatism — than it does about anything else, but let’s leave that be for now.)

And as we all know, Nick ran an effective and successful 2010 campaign for Team Ford. I’ve argued, however, that the municipal election of 2010 marked one of the lowest points in the history of Toronto politics, in large part because of Team Ford’s success in establishing a dominant narrative of resentment, pessimism, shallow thinking and belligerent divisiveness. The city’s falling apart. Lazy unionized workers with their culture of entitlement and jobs for life. Waste, inefficiency and gravy trains. Downtown elitists sneering at the hardworking suburban taxpayers. War on the Car. Time to blow up City Hall and start over.

I said a couple of sentences ago that Nick’s good at what he does. What he’s done, unfortunately, has diminished us as a city and as a community. The ascendancy of Team Ford has lowered the tone of public conversation, poured sand in the mechanisms of governance and devalued the currency of citizenship. We’ve been paying the price ever since, in both the regular mayoral embarrassments and the continuing day-to-day fraying of the social fabric. I’ve never tried to hide my thinking on that

One of the fundamental themes here, both in the context of this essay and a larger overarching analysis of Team Ford’s tenure, is the difference between campaigning and governing. Once again, campaigning isn’t about nuance, but about framing your message, delivering it effectively, and mobilizing the vote in the run-up to election day. And there’s no denying the impact of simple, emotionally resonant messaging; a lot of people thought the idea of Mayor Rob Ford was a joke, but here we are.

When it comes to governance, however, simplicity and catchphrases have to give way to reflection, analysis, and critical thinking. Interests have to be balanced, stakeholders identified, objectives defined, and resources allocated in a way that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s complicated. It’s not as easy as repeating bumper-sticker slogans like “Respect for Taxpayers.”

So here’s one of the fundamental themes for 2014: The Difference Between Campaigning and Governing.

And here, too, is one of the yardsticks whereby Team Ford’s performance will be judged come Campaign 2014. Have they delivered effective governance? Have they managed a coherent and co-ordinated operation of public institutions? Have they demonstrated the ability to work the system efficiently and collegially? This is where Nick’s record, and his own words, become particularly relevant.

Another question that will define Campaign 2014, then: Effective Governance.

Whether the current municipal structures are designed for optimal delivery of services is a larger question than we have room for here. (In that regard, though, it’s worth revisiting a couple of compelling arguments from J.M. McGrath and Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler.) We needn’t resolve that question, however, to observe that a large part of effective governance, within the current context, is the ability to build coalitions, to bring people on board your team, and to work collaboratively. In short, it’s about negotiating, persuading folks to buy in, building support, and Getting Along With People.

Well then. Anyone want to try charting Team Ford’s record in that regard over the last couple of years? Anyone want to lay odds on the mayor’s chances of success in advancing his agenda over the next couple of years? You can look at big things like transit or little things like plastic bags, but the pattern’s pretty clear; Team Ford’s control of city council is tenuous to non-existent. And if you’re going to claim operational competency in municipal governance, you need to be able to work with council. It’s part of the job. 

Whatever you may think of them, it’s something both David Miller and Mel Lastman were able to do. Contrast that with Team Ford’s performance. Once again, back to Nick:

To Nick’s credit, he doesn’t try to dissemble or hide this. In it to win. Take no prisoners. I’m here to get things done, not make friends. No substitute for victory. From there it’s not that far to the end justifies the means. Maybe there are aspects of this I’m not seeing, but it’s hard to reconcile an approach like this with effective team-building. In effect, it’s almost guaranteed to kneecap the mayor’s ability to build coalitions — never one of Rob Ford’s strong points to begin with

Another overarching theme for 2014, then: Working With Council.

Team Ford’s strategy in that regard, predictably, hasn’t been that encouraging. In fairness, this isn’t about Nick; I’ve listened to enough iterations of the #FoBroSho on Sunday afternoons to recognize one of their consistent memes. Every week, it seems, Rob and Doug go on about getting different councillors in 2014, setting up a lame excuse for their own inability to bring people onside. “Sorry folks, we know we haven’t gotten any subways built, but it’s not our fault. Those people on council won’t work with us!” You can see the same impulse at work when Doug Holyday tells us not to send any more activists, unionists, or cyclists to City Hall.

I hate to get all Donald Rumsfeld here, but you work with the council you’ve got, not the council you wish you had. If you can’t do that, you’re not a successful mayor. It’s part of the job. Building consensus, putting together a team, fashioning a majority to help you implement as much of your agenda as you can. Miller did it. Mel did it. You don’t get to alienate everyone, spend the next two and a half years sulking on your radio show, and then campaign on the basis of divisiveness, resentment, and “just send me a bunch of different councillors.”

From a pragmatic point of view, folks like Daren and Adam and Hamutal Dotan are right: if you can cobble together a coalition of 23 councillors, then the mayor doesn’t matter. As the events of the past year have shown, the councillors we’ve got are quite capable of controlling the agenda and governing around the mayor if they have to. It’s not ideal, and as John points out, it raises questions about competing mandates, but it is workable. 

On the other hand, Ed Keenan’s argued, persuasively, that the mayor’s record of gaffes has consumed far too much energy, focus and attention. In the wake of the Danzig shootings, for instance, Ed wrote:

With his customary bravado, the mayor proclaimed on Monday, “I’m taking a very simplistic approach.” That is the problem, I’d suggest. And so instead of discussing these very complicated issues, we’re spending time discussing the mayor’s inadequacy. What a load of BS.

Much as we might wish it were different, Ed’s got a point. Instead of chuckling about Rob Ford being in over his head or toying with the bright lights of Ford Nation on Twitter, we could be doing something constructive. Are we enhancing civic life? Are we strengthening the bonds of community? Or are we arguing about stupid shit?

So there’s one more possible storyline in the run-up to 2014: The Focus of Public Conversation.

By any of these criteria, Team Ford’s record ought to be instructive. But once again, friends: narratives. Framing. Messaging. 

Buckle up. 

Related posts:

Update: Now playing over at Toronto Citizens.

From Campaign 2010 to Campaign 2014: framing the #TOpoli narrative


It may be conventional, as we near the halfway point of Team Ford’s mandate, to expect a raft of think pieces, assessments, sententious analyses, and windy “Whither Toronto” wankfests. But enough about me.

Regular visitors to this little corner will be familiar, I think, with your humble servant’s fascination (obsession? – ed.) with framing, storylines, and narratives. It’s nothing new, of course; I harp on it because discourse – the words we use to talk to one another, the stories we tell each other, the themes we use in making sense of current events, the implicit assumptions – is at the very basis of civic engagement. It’s the most essential currency of citizenship. It’s from the basic discursive tools that everything else in the Citizen’s Toolbox – critical thinking, a sense of the public good, an appreciation for complexity – arises.

That’s part of the context for a discussion that developed earlier this afternoon on the Tweetr (kids these days). Regardless of what I may think of Team Ford’s approach to governance, you have to agree that the municipal election of 2010 was pretty much defined by the Ford campaign’s success in establishing and controlling the narrative. The messaging was so effective that with the exception of Joe Pantalone, all the other major mayoral contenders ended up buying into it to some extent. 

Nothing new or revealing there, of course. But as the subsequent two years have shown, there’s a big difference between campaigning and governing. Campaigning can be very effective when the messaging is straightforward and easy to grasp. Whether it’s truthful or constructive is another matter. Once you get into the nuts and bolts of governance, things get a bit more complicated. Either way, though, discourse and narratives matter. Words matter. Definitions matter. Connotations matter, because they’re all essential in establishing the terms whereby we communicate.

That’s not exactly a new insight either, and I’m not the first to suggest it, but I’d humbly suggest that it’s a lesson well worth repeating and establishing as one of the dominant memes for 2014. (I’m not tipping my hand or anyone else’s with this, I trust.)

It’s instructive, therefore, to read the tweets from Nick Kouvalis. Anyone tapped into Toronto politics knows about his role in getting Rob Ford into the mayor’s chair; as I’ve said before, regardless of what I may think about Ford’s politics and approach to governance, there’s no denying that Nick ran an effective and successful campaign. He knows about messaging and about mobilizing voters, and as the following collection of tweets shows, he’s got some insights we would do well to learn from. (Nick, why can’t you use your talents for niceness instead of evil?)

[View the story “Two years of #TeamFord, and what people voted for | #TOpoli” on Storify]


Perhaps it’s too soon. We don’t know what’s going to happen in two years. But I can’t help thinking that the difference between campaigning and governing is going to be central to almost every attempt to define and describe Team Ford’s record. 

Narratives, folks. Fasten your seat belts.

Related posts:

@Goldsbie and @NickKouvalis talk #transit, but where’s @KarenStintz? | #TOpoli #TTC

Let’s stop fetishizing "The Market" | #cdnpoli #TOpoli #classwarfare #austerity


Comrades, this is our moment. Tonight we smash capitalism!

(The code word is Dzhugashvili.)

OK, cheap laugh. Sorry, but how could I not? Bemoaning the debasement of public discourse isn’t doing much good on its own, so might as well get the easy laughs while I can. 

Anyway, to business. Two marvellous contributions to the conversation recently from Alex Himelfarb and Trish Hennessy; if you’re not reading their stuff, then start now. Where some people go for the easy snark and descend into rudeness, their stuff is invariably thoughtful, tempered and beautifully written. Their arguments are persuasive and elegantly constructed. If you want contemporary Canadian policy issues framed in a comprehensive context, it’s hard to think of better places to start. 

Both Alex and Trish have written recently about the so-called austerity agenda and the foolish unsustainability of fiscal policy based on tax cuts. I’m not going to try to improve on their arguments, because I can’t. I’ve linked to them; read them at your earliest convenience. What I do want to do, to the extent that I can, is expand upon them and, perhaps, establish a bit of context.

Before I get into that, though, a small observation consistent with my obsessive focus on the meanings of words, their use, and their connotations. “Austerity” is one of those loaded words. It’s got overtones of moral opprobrium, fiscal imprudence, even Calvinist rectitude. It’s difficult to imagine it coming up in conversation without connotations of stern paternalism, a sense that we’re wayward children in need of firm correction — for our own good, of course. Less is more. Live within our means. Shared sacrifice. Tightening our belts. We’re all familiar with the discourse by now. Inevitably, however, the attendant pain is borne mostly by the less privileged members of society. 

Again, though: Alex and Trish have set up a comprehensive and essential discussion of the “austerity agenda,” so I won’t rehash it. To the extent that I can contribute, I’d like to suggest a bit of political and discursive context; if I’m successful, this will help re-frame the discussion and expose some of the underlying assumptions. 

The most important pillar in that context, in my submission: “The Market.”

There’s no shortage of right-wing think tanks devoted to deification of “The Market” and belching out talking points in an attempt to control the discourse. In an earlier post, I linked to a terrific site examining the sources of their funding; The Sixth Estate goes into a fair bit of detail about who funds them and why. It’s worthwhile background reading if you want to understand why the meme of “The Market” holds such sway in the national conversation.

My purpose here, though, is more basic. Let’s go back to first principles and define our terms: what do we mean when we talk about markets? From Wikipedia:

A market is one of many varieties of systems, institutions, procedures, social relations and infrastructures whereby parties engage in exchange. While parties may exchange goods and services by barter, most markets rely on sellers offering their goods or services (including labor) in exchange for money from buyers. It can be said that a market is the process in which the prices of goods and services are established.

I’m not suggesting that Wikipedia’s is the last word. I’m citing it only for the sake of discussion. In this context, it’s defined as a system of economic relations, a means for establishing the value of goods and services. Left unaddressed is the question of whether such a system should be the only means whereby we govern social relations; we’ll return to this momentarily.

Let’s acknowledge at the outset, though, that like most social relationships and forms of organization, it is an artificial construct. It did not exist in a state of nature; it is not some uncontrollable force like the weather, and it does not function through acts of God.

However, let’s take a good long look at the position to which we have elevated it. We have raised this artificial construct to a position of quasi-divine power, and we are making weekly obeisances to it as if it’s a force of nature. An immutable thing over which we have no control. And tied to that is the assumption that left to its own devices, it will always produce the optimal result. Societies governed by market forces, we are told, are always more free, more efficient, and more adaptable.

And we attribute the most anti-social, destructive things to it and then just shrug. What are you gonna do? Supply and demand. It’s “The Market” at work, folks, and you’ve priced yourselves out of it. We can’t afford to pay decent wages any more. We can’t afford a social safety net any more. Investors will just take their money elsewhere. We’ll need to tighten our belts and live within our means. 

Let’s imagine for a minute. A powerful external agency devastates our country / flies planes into office buildings / inflicts unimaginable environmental degradation / destroys our economic infrastructure. Pick one. Or pick them all. The common theme in all of these is a destructive external force ripping the heart out of our community. All the myriad connections, bonds and interdependencies upon which the fabric of society is built are unsentimentally torn apart. In other contexts, we’d consider it an act of war. We’ve been attacked.

But when corporations like Electro-Motive do it, we shrug and tell ourselves it’s just market forces. As if that somehow takes away the moral stain. Let’s not pussyfoot around here. Leaving people without the means to support themselves is wrong.

When people place self-interest above all, ignore the rules of civilized behaviour, and don’t give a shit about anyone else, we call them sociopathic. When international investment vehicles and corporations act that way, they’re just maximizing shareholder value and reacting to “The Market.”

But if “The Market” can’t ensure a living wage and decent benefits and contribute to the economic underpinnings of a community — all those parts of our daily lives that make us social human beings — then What Fucking Use Is It?

It’s time to stop fetishizing it.

Never mind the artificial construct or the logical and se
mantic hoops its mouthpieces lead us through. Subsidies, tax breaks, artificial monopolies, empty regulations — all these things are a licence to print money when, in fact, the recipients don’t compete in a “free market” at all. They want us to guarantee a return on their investments, look the other way when they use their economic power to crush competition, and meekly acquiesce when they form oligopolies and cartels to milk us for all they can get.

But for all the frippery and harrumphing we’ll hear from the corporate media and the think tanks, they never really address that question. There’ll be plenty of distraction, plenty of misdirection, and reams of effort devoted to changing the subject. And again, we’re all familiar with the memes: investor confidence, mobility of capital, free trade, labour market flexibility, respect for taxpayers, yargle bargle blegh.

Which brings us to the question of unions and organized labour, and the impending lockout of Toronto city workers. Once again, let’s be clear about our biases: as a paper from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives recently argued, 

No country has ever achieved widespread prosperity and created a large middle class without strong unions.

Generations of hard-fought union struggles brought Canadians the eight-hour day and the weekend; workplace health and safety legislation and employment standards; income supports for new parents and training for unemployed workers; public pensions and minimum wages; protections for injured workers and equal pay for equal work.

Unions helped organize the extension of these negotiated workplace-based achievements to the whole workforce through legislation.

Again, this is boilerplate. The CCPA paper is essential background material; it helps establish the context for a more fundamental argument which owes much to Trish Hennessy’s implication about a ruthlessly unilateral shredding of the social contract. That shredding has been abetted or even tacitly encouraged by a succession of increasingly feckless and then captured federal governments. As Trish argues, 

1. Instead of defined pensions, we were offered RRSPs.

2. Instead of an EI program that’s recession-ready, we were offered TFSAs.

3. Instead of affordable university tuition, we were offered RESPs.


Once again, let’s go back to first principles and examine some of the underlying assumptions. Why shouldn’t we have these things? They benefit society as a whole. Their value ought to be so self-evident that we shouldn’t even have to have the debate. That’s why I’m referring to the social contract. Underlying the phrase is another concept that needs to be reaffirmed and reclaimed: the public good. And since these things accrue to the public good, it stands to reason that they should be enshrined as public-policy objectives, and funded accordingly. 

Instead, we listen as one think-tank mouthpiece or bank spokesthingy or columnist after another lectures us about “living within our means” and tells us we can’t afford it. And thus are our expectations steadily lowered — of ourselves, of our country, of one another, of citizenship itself. The bar is progressively lowered, the defining criteria for enlightened and civilized society are abandoned, and eventually we’re left at the mercy of international investment regimes and the corporations that work them, with no corresponding public institutions to defend the public good.

Where does organized labour fit into all this? As Trish points out, it’s no coincidence that unionized public-sector workers are being attacked and demonized. In my submission, they’re an essential element in the defence of the public good and the public sphere. They’re one of the few countervailing institutions in the struggle against “market forces” as defined by the think tanks and their patsies. I recognize that this is going to be a hard sell these days, but that doesn’t make them any less important as a counterbalance, so let’s have at the inevitable objections. 

Should unionized public-sector workers be making 150, 200 % more than the “market rate?” Frankly, I don’t care, because that’s not the issue. I’m not going to reduce the conversation to one about numbers, and I don’t know what “the market rate” means. There will always be some nasty corporation ready to undercut the public service, pay people 8 bucks an hour and treat them like shit, and protest that “that’s the market rate.” SFW? How does that advance the public good? What’s so special about “The Market?” Again, if it can’t advance the public good or ensure that quality of life is enhanced for everyone, what fucking use is it

Once again, back to the notion of the public good. The public sphere has a role to play in this beyond whatever artificial reductionist fantasies about “The Market” you want to indulge in. By ensuring that public-sector workers are paid a living wage with decent benefits, we set an example for private-sector employers to follow. We are making a statement about our values — that decent wages and the healthy communities which rely upon them are important and worth preserving, regardless of what the free-marketeer flimflam artists might be selling. We support that with workplace-standards legislation, with laws protecting the rights of workers to form unions and bargain collectively, anti-strikebreaker legislation, and so on. All of these have been enacted, after protracted struggles, by democratically elected governments supposedly charged with enhancing the public interest. It’s no coincidence that as that government gets colonized, regulatory agencies crippled by lobbyists, and the public conversation dominated by the corporate media, these have all been under attack — most stridently by the tabloid press which brays about being the voice of the little guy while advancing an agenda that just happens to coincide with the interests of the 1 per cent.

And again, let’s go back to the imaginary example suggested above: the scenario wherein a community’s economic backbone is at stake. Yes, my taxes pay public-sector workers’ wages. So what? Ensuring a decent income for everyone benefits society as a whole. I don’t have a problem with that, and the steady drumbeat of demonization and stupid memes about them being lazy overpaid thugs isn’t going to change that.

Sure, maybe my tax bill might be lower if we outsource to some contractor who pays its people shit, but how does that make society better? I might save a few bucks on my taxes, but I’ll be paying for it in countless other ways — as Alex has described, a meaner, more threadbare, more divided and polarized society with more crime, more conflict, more violence and more despair. All to save a few bucks and stick it to the “greedy unions?” Really, union-haters? Is that what you want? If so, then at least have the courage to admit it.

There’s a whole series of assumptions that need to be exposed, unpacked and questioned. It’s beyond the scope of a single blog post, but one of the conversations that needs to happen concerns things like tariffs and “protectionism,” versus “free trade.” While I’m not claiming economic expertise, it seems to me that once again, it comes down to value choices. If we’re placing the right of international investors to make a quick buck above the need to foster domestic industries and maintain national control over re
source extraction, or the right to craft industrial policy in a way that serves the interests of our citizens and produces the greatest good for the greatest number, fine, but then let’s be honest about it. It’s not about some irresistible natural force called “The Market.” It’s class warfare, pure and simple. The only question we need to ask ourselves is which side we’re on.

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#Unions and the Life of Brian | h/t @RickTelfer

I almost pissed myself laughing.

I won’t go so far as to say that anything said in an Australian accent is automatically that much funnier, but god damn.