The economy is in trouble, and millions of people around the world are suffering (in various ways and to various extremes), because of the failure of a deregulated profit-driven private-sector financial industry.
I think that statement is largely unquestionable.
You would think, logically, that this fact should put the free-market private sector on the defensive. Ironically, however, the reverse seems to be happening in terms of a rising nasty mood in popular culture. Instead of blaming financiers (and the government regulators who let them play without adult supervision) for the mess, many commentators and many members of the public-at-large are turning instead on another scapegoat: unions and their members. Instead of blaming the market system for what ails them, they are blaming a high-profile, close-to-home institution (unions) that has tried to put limits on the market system.
If the recent auto restructuring bargaining had been determined by public opinion (rather than at the bargaining table), CAW members at GM and Chrysler would be working for just over minimum wage today. And if the City of Toronto civic worker dispute was settled in the court of public opinion (rather than at the bargaining table), there’s no doubt that the union would lose much more than the sick-leave-payout scheme that has been the focus of the employer’s concession demands so far. Safe to say, in both cases, that public opinion runs at least 5-to-1 against the union. And this is a mystery to me.
No-one can claim that unions caused this recession. And I haven’t seen a credible story that union concessions can solve this recession. No-one can even claim that unreasonable union demands have caused the mini-wave of labour turmoil that is turning up the heat in some communities this summer (from striking city workers in Toronto and Windsor, to ambulance drivers in B.C.). In every one of these cases, the conflict was sparked by a management demand for concessions, not a “greedy” union demand for “more, more, more.” The same was true in most of the other tough contract talks that ended up being settled (with much less fanfare, of course) — such as the Ontario liquor store workers, the Bombardier aircraft workers, or the five Air Canada contracts. In every case the workers were trying to hang onto something, not win more.
(Re the Ontario liquor near-strike: While Toronto may be stinky this summer, at least it won’t be sober!)
None of this stops the knee-jerk anti-union political apparatus from kicking into high gear, whenever there is an opportunity to point the finger at unions.
Why on earth is it so easy to blame unions for whatever inconvenience or economic harm results from these work stoppages? Unions didn’t cause the underlying economic problem. Unions didn’t make the demands that led to the work stoppages. Unions giving up stuff won’t help the economy turn around (in fact, it would only lengthen the downturn, by further eating into mass purchasing power). Yet the overwhelming storyline out there is that unions are a pain in the ass, they should “get a grip” (in the words of the newly-crowned Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak), they should come down and joint the rest of us in the real world (where getting screwed by the boss is a normal state of affairs — so get used to it already!).
I am an economist, not a psychologist, but I am very interested in why it happens this way — not to mention any suggestions for how unions (including my own) can respond more effectively to the backlash.
Is it simply that misery loves company? Sure, I may have a lousy deal in life. And taking away something from relatively better off unionized workers won’t make me any better off. But somehow it makes me feel better. Is there a nasty politics of envy underneath? Why can’t unions be supported for trying to win (and, these days, hang onto) stuff that every worker deserves? And why isn’t anger at the current state of affairs directed at those who actually caused it: immediately at the financiers and speculators, and more broadly at the architects of market-driven neo-liberalism that have controlled our economic destiny for coming on three decades now?
There is one obvious answer to this puzzle, helpful but incomplete. Somehow (partly, not solely, because of their own failures) unions have come to be seen as protecting the special interests of unionized workers, rather than fighting for the interests of ALL workers. So anti-union forces take advantage of this space to try to turn $10 Tim Horton’s workers against $25 city workers and $34 autoworkers — even though busting the auto and city unions would simply ensure continuing poverty for the Tim Horton’s worker (partly because there will be less money circulating to pay for coffee and donuts, but more importantly because the prospects of workers uniting to make themselves better off will seem even more remote).
Unions can do better at overcoming this stereotype (which isn’t exactly accurate). The CAW tried this with some success in our campaigning this spring for pension protections — not just for autoworkers (whose pensions were in immediate jeopardy), but for all workers for whom the pension promise is like a light at the end of the tunnel of a long, hard working life. We must position our goals as aimed at bettering the quality of life for working people, establishing principles of fair treatment in work that everyone can fight for (rather than begrudging).
But we shouldn’t be naive about what difference this will make. The enemies of unions have always tried to portray union members as a pampered elite, to undercut any sense of working class identity. So I guess the only thing unions can do is keep fighting: to protect what some workers have won, to extend the fight on behalf of workers who have won very little, and to provide an alternative story-line about the current crisis that helps people direct their anger in directions that are more sensible — and in ways that can actually help us change things for the better, rather than pulling us all down into cynicism and bitterness.
Here are a couple of links on this point that may be of interest.
First, I had a good old-fashioned knock-em-down-drag-em-out debate over unions with Catherine Swift of the CFIB on CBC’s The Current last week. She very often imparts a tone of sarcastic arrogance to her remarks that gets my goat — tapping into the prior assumption that her small business constituency is always efficient, hard-working, and job-creating (as opposed to tax-evading, under-paying, union-busting). We had, as they say in diplomatic circles, a “full and frank exchange of views.” Here’s the link to judge for yourself:
Second, Tom Walkom wrote a lovely piece in The Star about the ironies of poor, pissed-off people blaming unions for their woes, rather than the ones who actually made them poor:
- Harper Job Record in 2013 (December 8th, 2013)
- A Part-Time, Do-It-Yourself Job Market (December 6th, 2013)
- How Harper can avoid turning a Budget Implementation Bill into a Duffy budget bill (November 27th, 2013)
- Raise Wages, Train Workers (November 14th, 2013)
- Job Market Stuck in a Rut (November 8th, 2013)