Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Giving Unions Their Dues

Look back to the early days of the Breadbin, back when dinosaurs walked the earth and we were all eight years younger, and you'll see its baker has changed his mind about a few things.

I'm still recognizably the same person in many ways. Some of my opinions have only hardened as the years have passed, as if in cement. For instance, my attitude re: love and beauty hasn't changed and I doubt it ever will.

My opinion about humanity (I love individual people, but as they coalesce into groups they tend to lose likability) also remains the same. And that monkey's still on my back.

But I've done a slow one-eighty on many matters political over the years. I once was a fairly faithful Conservative supporter; I voted for Jack in the last election and have contemplated becoming a card-carrying NDP member.
This is supposedly bass-ackwards. There's a famous quote, often misattributed to Winston Churchill (as many famous quotes are), to the effect that "if you're not a liberal at 20, you have no heart; if you're not a conservative at 40, you have no brain." I reject that utterly. Liberals have brains and conservatives have hearts. Likewise, liberals can be coldhearted and conservatives can be stupid.

I have decided, by slow degrees over many years, that one of the ways conservatives are stupid is their anti-union stance.

I used to be dead-set against unions. The following anecdotes might give you some idea of why.

My old girlfriend moved to Toronto after she graduated. She was having a hard time making ends meet: we were just coming out of recession and jobs were hard to come by. She called me one night ecstatic that she had landed a job as a cashier at a grocery store. Starting wage was $18 an hour. This was 1994, and I don't make that much now.
Three nights later I got another call. This time Cathy was in tears. Seems she had gone in for her first shift and checked the schedule only to find it was also her only shift that week. Three hours. She asked how she could get more hours and people laughed at her. It turned out that hours were granted by seniority, and any open shift was first offered to the highest person in the hierarchy. If she refused, it was offered at each successive rung down the ladder. The odds of it getting to Cathy at the very bottom of that ladder were essentially nil. Cathy maintained that nobody told her of this policy, and that she had been 'guaranteed' twenty hours a week.
Now, she may have misheard. But I doubt it. People as poor as she was then have an obsessive need to check the figures for any money coming in, and she'd done the math seven ways to Sunday. She told me about it, too, on that first call. I distinctly remember feeling rather envious; I was making ten bucks an hour at the time, doing similar work--except I worked straight nights at Drunk Central Station, a.k.a. 7-11 at University and King.

Then there's what happened to Eva. She ran West Coast operations for a market research company. One year while Eva was on vacation, a malcontent decided to get the place unionized. Nobody said a word to her upon her return; two days later, she looked at the blackboard in her call center and noticed something was wrong. (She has an uncanny ability to do this: to this day, she can look at a screen of code at a glance and spot an error.) The union papers--which by law had to be made public--were mostly hidden beneath a sheaf of other paperwork. Her two best workers quit in protest. ƒƒIt was a good thing her company was in the process of scouting new locations to move that office--and could prove it. Otherwise they would have been forced to remain open, at substantially increased costs.

Dirty, underhanded tricks. I have a friend who briefly ran a unionized store in Brampton, Ontario. He stepped down and relocated of his own accord when he found that his staff was more interested in finding the most trivial things they could to grieve. He spent most of his time trying to placate a union that had no interest in being placated--which left not enough time for the little things, like trying to manage the $%^*ing store.

So, yeah, my attitudes about unions were less than charitable. I've delivered all the talking points in stentorian tones: you knew what the job was when you took it; jobs in the real world have contracts, too, but out here they stipulate your responsibilities instead of dwelling on your rights; striking workers should be fired because there are thousands who would do that work at that pay; if your job pays you fifteen bucks an hour, maybe that's because that's all your skill set is worth.

But then gradually, over time, I began to notice things. Things like how real wages adjusted for inflation have been stagnant for over thirty years, and are actually starting to fall for some. Things like how the richest among us, as I write this on January the third, have already made more than the average worker will this year. And, of course, how jobs are increasingly being sold to the lowest bidder, be that bidder in India or Indonesia, while the parent company rakes in billions in profits. Dirty, underhanded tricks, in other words.

Whenever I've brought this sort of thing up, people have accused me of being Robin Hood. Supposedly I'm out to impoverish the rich and make it so a convenience store clerk and a doctor get equal salaries.

Whatever. THIS is why I think unions still have a vital place.
Here's an Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ontario. EMD is a subsidiary of Caterpillar, a company that had record-setting profits for 2011 and whose CEO pocketed a cool $10.4 million. (The previous CEO received $22.5 million upon his retirement.)
So what does Caterpillar do? They demand the EMD skilled labourers take a more than 50% cut in pay and benefits. Seems fair, doesn't it? *snicker*
There's obviously more to this story: Caterpillar has every intention of shutting this plant down and relocating to the United States, where at least one Republican candidate hit upon the bright idea of solving unemployment by abolishing the minimum wage.
If Caterpillar was struggling financially, I'd at least understand this a little better. But their profit quadrupled last quarter and the chief executive foresees a bright 2012. Maybe in Muncie, Indiana. Certainly not in London, Ontario.

Sadly, I see this scenario being repeated all over the place...maybe not to this degree, but the new motto everywhere is "do more with less". Actually, it's not a new motto: what with automation, one employee can now do what used to be the work of three. Or five. Or ten. Yet that one employee is still paid the same--or less, when inflation is factored in. Seems fair, doesn't it? *snicker*
At some point something's gotta give.  

Much as I hate it, this economy is based on consumption.  If you want to stimulate it, the best and perhaps only way to do it is to raise wages, so that people can afford to buy things. Because let's face it: if you put money in an average worker's pocket, she'll turn around and spend it. If you put money in a corporation's pocket...
Does that mean that the minimum wage should be fifty bucks an hour? Of course not. It would be helpful, though, if it didn't yield an income below the poverty line. Because until we get around to the sensible Scandinavian subsidization of higher education, there's no reasonable alternative to minimum wage employment for many.
And wages--all of them, not just the minimum--should be legally tied to inflation. I would also enact a law prohibiting profitable companies from closing up shop just so they can double profits that just quadrupled. Enough is bloody well enough. People are not chess pieces, and people's livelihoods are not a game.

Understand: I'm not suggesting every place, or even most places, should go out and get themselves unionized. I think a union is, at its best, a layer of tape. When your boss says 'C'mon, everybody, we're going to get on that big slide over there and race to the bottom!", you can firmly affix that tape to your ass and say "not so fast". If you don't see a slide on your workplace's horizon, you don't necessarily need that tape. But if you're already in the playground...

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