Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Why, indeed?

I have a knee-jerk reaction when I hear the word "strike": it's to jerk my knee right into the privates of strikers. Every once in a while I find myself siding with the union in a strike...but not often. My attitude is summed up in ten words: you knew what the job was when you took it.
Perhaps I'm not being fair, but screw it: life ain't fair...I learned that in kindergarten.

Often, I'm accused of envy whenever I union-bash, particularly since I make a fraction of what unionized employees most often do. I will relate the following anecdote to refute:

An old girlfriend of mine called me one day--a little over a decade ago--to tell me she'd landed a job as a grocery store cashier, making $23/hr. To start. Holy crap, I thought, from the depths of my $8.55/hr job doing pretty much the same thing. Maybe I oughta get this place unionized!
She started on a Monday...and Monday night she called me in tears. "Yes, I'm making $23/hr", she said, "but I'm only scheduled for three hours this week and four next." She told me she had tried to pick up some shifts, only to have other people laugh at her. "You don't pick up shifts here," she was told. "If someone doesn't want a shift, we ask the next senior member on staff. If she doesn't want it, we ask the next most senior. And so on. Odds of a shift trickling down to somebody who's worked, let's see, two hours? Pretty much nil."

I've never forgotten that phone call. It was maybe the first time, as an adult, the truth of TANSTAAFL was driven home to me: There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

The city of Toronto is currently experiencing a municipal workers' strike. Garbage collection, city-run day camps and daycares, and numerous other services aren't being provided. Needless to say, there's a heat wave: 34 degrees (94 F) with the humidex today. These strikes always seem to happen in the summer, the same way school strikes never do.

What are the issues?

The first one is a sick leave bank that workers are fighting to keep. Municipal workers get 1.5 sick days a month; if they don't take them, they go in the bank, to be paid out as a nice tidy bonus upon retirement. Quoting from the above link:

It's supposed to be an incentive not to take sick days.
The thinking is that employees who are entitled to sick days that evaporate every month will just take them, whereas employees entitled to bank their sick days will only take days off when they are really sick, and save the rest.

For the record, I get five paid sick days a year. No matter. Five days or eighteen, sick days, by definition, are for when you're ill. My employer trusts me, and so I'm not required to furnish a doctor's note if I take time off. But they're well within their rights to demand one if they believe I'm playing hooky, as it were. And if I dare to play hooky, and get caught? I believe Donald Trump says it best.

That's not envy. That's real-world.

The other issues are (of course) wages and job security. The union is saying all it wants is a "fair contract", akin to what other unions got last year without a strike.

I'm puzzled at this use of the term "contract". Of late there has been much concern about full time permanent workers being replaced by those "on contract". Typical contracts include no benefits and expire in six months or a year. That, to me, is a contract--and I disagree vehemently with it.

But union contracts are a breed apart. They contain all manner of benefits and they run for two to five years...after which point a new contract is sought (and if not awarded, often the union votes to withhold its services until it is). I don't get this. What's changed about the job since the last contract came into effect? Why do you need a raise beyond the cost of inflation? Have you merited one? All of you? Really?

See, here's how things would work if I ran the world. A "contract" could be said to exist between employer and employee: the employee shows up and discharges her duties in a satisfactory manner, and thus is paid. Additional benefits would be detailed at time of hire, subject to the firm's ability to pay them and the employee's continuing deservance of them. Wages would be tied to inflation; any additional raises or bonuses would be on merit alone.

Such contracts would not expire. Any employee choosing to withhold her services for three consecutive days would be assumed to have quit, and a new employee would be found to take her place.

Wait a second. Save for the "wages tied to inflation"--something I'd like to see included so that one's real purchasing power doesn't decrease over time--those are exactly the conditions I work in the real world.

David Miller, the mayor of Toronto and easily the Canadian politican I most despise, has a message for the citizens of Toronto, doing the city's job for it by bringing their refuse to waste transfer stations, only to be blocked by picket lines: "It's becoming clear there is a small group of people who are taking advantage of this strike to use Toronto as their personal dumping ground," he says. "We will not tolerate this kind of activity." City bylaw officers (what, aren't they on strike too?) have been seen rooting through trash in search of names and addresses. The fines run from $380 to $50,000.
Well, I guess we know whose side the Mayor's on. It's really a wonder somebody hasn't dumped a huge heaping helping of stinky trash on the heads of some of these picketers. After removing anything that could identify himself, of course.

"But these are entitlements! We signed the last deal in good faith! How dare they rip up our collective agreement?!"

They have a bit of a point, only because Miller's been free and easy with the city's money ever since he got elected. Now that he's spent it all and Toronto's on the fiduciary ropes, it's perhaps understandable that people are trying to draw blood from the stone broke. That's Miller's problem, and it's a doozy. I wouldn't want to be in his shoes right now.

Meantime, if a settlement isn't reached--and most accounts say it won't be--one will be legislated. Which begs the question: why can't they just legislate these things before the strike, saving millions of people undue hardship and hassle?

Why, indeed?

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