Unions - A Private Affair



So 2020 has been a bad year for a lot of people, including public sector unions. The one exception of course being nurses. Thank goodness for us that their allegiance to their professional oath trumps that of their union. 


First it was the Ontario teachers' unions and their strike actions, coupled with foot dragging on synchronous learning. Then came the streams of police video showing officers committing deadly crimes against humanity and other acts of police brutality.  We then learned that many of the officers involved faced little discipline after previously reported infractions. 


We also had the issue of fearful OPSEU members not going in to do their inspections at long term care facilities. Finally, seeing some concerned teacher unions are balking at reports that schools should re open in the fall. Even though the report comes from a highly respected source - Sick Kids and concludes what many knew already, that school closures do more harm than good.  


Sense a pattern here. What you have to realize if you haven't already is that public sector unions have no real interest in serving the public - only their members. Which is fine, that is their mandate and how they are structured.  Any talk otherwise is just that - talk. Pure political posturing and public relations aimed not only at the public, but designed to quell any sense of guilt from its members. 


It is why any suggestions to improve the public service are met with derision by union leadership if the improvements do not directly benefit their members. Democrats got so fed up with teacher unions in the U.S. that they decided they must throw the baby out with the bath water and support charter schools to cut the teacher unions out of the equation. 


As for law enforcement, the blue wall is not just a policing phenomenon - calling out fellow union members for bad behaviour is more than just frowned upon by union leadership. It can lead to sanctions and fines of members.  So it will take more than marches to reform these entrenched structures. 


How did this happen? 


Initially, unions were involved to help low skilled labour in workplaces that offer little protection. If you can train someone in no time to do your job and skill is of little value - the pay for it can quickly become a race to the bottom. That is why I do believe in the right to organize and negotiate collectively for this type of low skill work that gives labour little or no protection.  All one needs to do is read the book the Grapes of Wrath to understand the need for workers to organize. 


Many people will point to private business employees that have thrived without unions. But for every Toyota out there, there is a GM, whose union workers walk the line to set the compensation bar for an industry. 


The pandemic has shone the light on  inequity and people have taken notice. Trudeau and Ontario's Ford have stepped in and said the grocery store workers should keep their pandemic pay increase. That and the fact that high profile business leaders in the U.S. have pushed for minimum wage increases - tells you the system is out of whack.  

Unfortunately, the union movement long ago abandoned the most vulnerable. Leaving them unprotected against private business owners. Private sector union membership has declined, while at the same time public union membership has grown. Unions decided long ago it was easier to go up against a spineless government with a bottomless pit of cash than a private concern with finite resources. If the elected government doesn't play ball - no problem you can strike and hold the public hostage. In the private sector it's the customer who comes first, in the public sector, the customer has to wait till the service provider's concerns are met.   


It's for this reason that iconic American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a left leaning Democrat who argued against unions being involved in the public sector. I couldn't agree more. If we are going to make serious reforms in policing, teaching and the public sector as a whole we have to look at the systems we have put in place. 


Governments at all levels have had their budgets stretched thin trying to meet the continual salary and benefit demands of the public service unions. That has left them little room to meet the other demands for scarce government funds. It's why some decrepit school buildings have nice cars in the parking lot. 


New and improved essential infrastructure is needed badly, but bridges don't vote or do campaign advertising on your behalf. So the trough keeps getting filled, while little is left for the most vulnerable. 


So what to do. To assuage concerns that this is an attack on all unions. Governments of all political stripes should pass laws making it easier for private unions to organize. Barring that, targeted increased minimum wage and benefit standards for specific large low skill employers. Hello Walmart and Amazon.    


If you don’t like the government setting wages and prefer market forces do it. Fine, here is one for you. Overhaul and tighten regulations for foreign temporary workers. Sorry farmers, but we can’t bring workers in from Mexico, when we have a domestic,  youth unemployment problem. Can’t find anyone, then pay more and let the free market do its thing. 


For public sector unions, the right to hold the public hostage through strikes must end now. Set compensation to inflation and be done with it.  When a government is elected by the people to make reforms to the public service that is their domain. If public sector unions don’t like it they can do what everyone else can do in our wonderful democracy - vote.  


Many labour supporters don’t distinguish between public and private union bashing, but the public does.  Many will  honk in support of hotel maids and other marginalized workers fighting for better pay.  But for university educated public sector workers, I am sorry, but your job requires enough skill that you should have demonstrated your worth to others by now. 


Gregory Cawsey


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