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The Progressive Economics Forum

When in Doubt, Blame Unions

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:

http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/2009/200906/20090625.html

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:

http://www.thestar.com/comment/columnists/article/656836

Enjoy and share:

Comments

Comment from David
Time: June 29, 2009, 10:49 am

A couple of ideas. I think with the auto bailouts, public opinion is negative because people are sensative about their money. If it was a dispute between the auto makers and the union, people probably wouldn’t care too much, but when governments are investing millions and millions of tax dollars into the auto companies, people suddenly think like employers and want workers to take a lower wage, because they now have an interest in the company’s success.

You are right though that unions do seem to look out for unionized workers. The general principle of unions is that they try to raise wages for unionized workers, and if you raise price, that means you lower demand. Maybe not at the margin (the literature is mixed on the effect of raising the minimum wage) but it’s there.

I think another issue is that union leaders are often vote maximizers, so they often only care about a majority of union members who tend to vote. I was in a union at a supermarket job once, and the union was perfectly happy to maintain a two-tiered wage system where 25% of the staff had full time jobs at wages of about $22 an hour, and the rest of us had part-time jobs at close to minimum wage. Even though we were both doing the same work, the union didn’t really fight for equality because the people who care about that stuff and show up to vote are the 25% of staff working full time, not the high school and university kids who are working part time and will quit later.

I think a final issue I’ve found with being a union member is that unions generally strive for contracts that reward seniority, rather than ability. As a young person who works hard, that kind of environment is not attractive to me, as I’d prefer to be able to advance in the workplace on my ability, as I won’t get very far based on my age. I think a lot of people with similar mentalities see unions as trying to prevent that behaviour.

Comment from Paul Tulloch
Time: June 29, 2009, 11:45 am

funny you should comment like this today Jim. I was just reading E.P. Thompson’s, The Making of the Working Class, as I have been trying myself to understand the nature of the back lash you mention.

Somehow, somewhere, the key fixture I have latched onto from E.P. is the notion of self-activating and self- organizing.

i.e. what brings these measures about within one’s economy that translates into a postive space for collective action.

We have a media that has had the collective sense beaten from it, and for some reason the culture has given way to this media monstor. I think the guys like Adorno, Marcuse and the Frankfurt group were not actually whistling dixie, it was some othe tune.

It is sad to see such forces gaining momentum- divide and conquer is the current call being trumpeted from the anti-union forces. I kind of feel like this is the Dunkirk for Unions in Canada.

It could be worse, we could have had the Alamo that the US unions had over the last 30 years.

A happy note- its only going ot get worse, and eventually no media cloloured glasses will hide the economic misery and the root cause of it all.

Comment from Skinny Dipper
Time: June 29, 2009, 12:35 pm

I will agree with David’s comments in general. I have been a member of different unions including being in a supermarket union and now a teachers’ union. The supermarket union was a joke. The wages were at poverty level. The teachers’ union is much better as we look out for each other. While salaries are very important, so too are working conditions. Without a union, teachers would be working in American KIPP school like conditions where young teachers burn out after one year. We would not be allowed go into saloons after work. This was true in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It is true that my union strives to get the most for its members. It is not in the position to try to curry public opinion in its favour. The union is accountable to its members, not to the public. Yes, as teachers, we are accountable to the parents. However, not every adult is a parent. We’re only accountable to a select group of people: parents, students, principals, and superintendents, and the director of education.

Does it matter that CUPE is making people mad because of the strike in Toronto? No. CUPE is there to represent its members, not the general public. Does it matter the there is a world-wide recession according to Mayor David Miller? No. If times were great, he would still be asking for the same concessions. I won’t suggest that the union should dig in its heels and demand to keep the 18 paid sick days. It could offer to give up six of those days in exchange for some extra benefits elsewhere. The same holds true for the management and council. It could offer some benefits elsewhere in exchange for the union giving up six of their paid sick days.

Comment from Stuart Murray
Time: June 29, 2009, 12:55 pm

I’m going to say what I always say about this. The root of almost all of labour’s problems is declining labour density, to which the solution is union drives to increase or maintain union density. New certs and union organizers actively meeting with workers would increase the sense that unions are in it for everyone and not just their current members.

I think the biggest labour event that will happen this year and next will be not be collective bargaining, it will be the 0.X% decline in labour density. That number times 30 years will be, as Paul says, the Alamo. This is a severe case of management being able to pull ahead if they keep doing what they normally do.

On the scapegoating, I think we’re living through the thirties again. The rise of canning, knitting, slow cookers, vegetable gardening, maintaining old cars, nationalizing industries, and public works is being buttressed by far-right scapegoating, financial fraud, and war. It shouldn’t be surprising.

Comment from Coop
Time: June 29, 2009, 6:15 pm

I think anyone who has done any reading knows that unions are not responsible for the financials crisis. It’s been slow in hitting Canada, but will hit harder, I’m sure.

For me, the issue is looking at the difference between a CAW worker, and a CUPE worker. If I go out and buy a car, then I pay the wages of a CAW worker, though that is my choice. I have no choice about paying the salaries of city/provincial/federal employees, their salaries are taken from the taxes I pay. I pay taxes to have my garbage taken away. It’s like a fee for service, only I’m not getting the service I paid for, along with the rest of the people in Toronto. CUPE workers want to add sick time to the end of their working career, and take off 6 months early with full pay. That’s a fantastic benefit, and as someone who takes little sick time, I wish I had that benefit too. The problem is, it’s a very expensive benefit, and I have to pay for it through my taxes, as does everyone else. I’m sure there is some envy in peoples’ attitudes around a benefit like that. And I can think of 3 big tax hikes recently (and in the future) The doubling of the Land Transfer Tax in Toronto, the Green tax, and upcoming GST and HST harmonization.

As someone who works in social services (I’m also a CUPE member), I see a lot of people that use every single bit of their sick time, and I see others who use very little. I’m sure what’s happening in that CUPE local is that those who don’t use the sick time want to be compensated in some way. All in all, you’re looking at everyone getting an extra 3 weeks a year. Instead of looking at the work ethic of people taking 3 weeks of sick time a year, let’s give everyone the same benefit.

There comes a limit as to how much you can tax people, especially during a recession. You can look to California as a prelude as to what may happen in many states, and probably many provinces in the near future.

Comment from janfromthebruce
Time: June 29, 2009, 8:03 pm

Unions: the people who brought you the weekend!

That said, and it’s catchy, is unions have to “reframe” who done it. Unions who are not in the “spotlight” need to come together and fight for all workers – no more difference between public and private sectors.
And politically educating their membership to the political party who actually speaks out for working class folk and not the johnny come lately party (if you get my drift).

Comment from Ying Dwyer
Time: June 30, 2009, 1:48 am

My opinion is that Union should not only fight for equality, but also for shaping the ending products. Auto has been bad for environment and expensive. I can’t understand that why the sector couldn’t be transformed in producing better products that we need such as bus, electric bike and scooters.

Comment from Darwin O’Connor
Time: June 30, 2009, 6:59 am

Why do you think that “labour density” is declining?

Jobs seem to be migrating in two directions. One is the growth of professional white-collar jobs where individuals employees have enough clout to get decent pay and benefits on their own without the inflexibility and politics of a union.

The other direction is low-wage service jobs where the turnover rate is very high. It doesn’t make sense to go on strike for two weeks for 1% more pay, when you expect to be moving on to a different job in less then a year.

I’m not sure what to do about these service jobs, but I doubt more union drives will work. Pushing for a higher minimum wage or other legislated benefits is probably a good way to go.

Comment from Stuart Murray
Time: June 30, 2009, 8:39 am

Union membership as a percent of the workforce had been declining in Canada since 1990 – that’s what I mean. Unions often boast about their increasing total membership, but the population and workforce are growing at faster rates. Then unions boast about their growing size after mergers or raids, but those are not new union members, just new to that particular union.

With union density at around 30% and falling, you need roughly 30,000 new members for every 100,000 new jobs. I’m pretty sure that’s not happening.

As I said in my CCPA minimum wage paper, minimum wages are “one tool in the toolbox” and can’t be relied on to cure all ills. To address poverty, you need welfare, EI, mat benefits, minimum wage, employment standards, education, universal medical care, and a hodgepodge of smaller one-off programs to help really specific problems. And then you need the labour market to do the heavy lifting, and labour unions to give workers their share.

What seems to be happening is that the de-clawing of unions is concurrent with the scaling back of the other policy areas. They are complements not substitutes.

Comment from Brent Gulanowski
Time: June 30, 2009, 8:53 am

Where does the average person’s idea of a union come from? Reality? TV? Popular myth? Some combination, I’m sure. It probably doesn’t help that the only time unions make the news seems to be in relation to something bad, like a strike, which is easy to manipulate in the news to denigrate unions.

However it gets formed, the fact is that unions face a strong bias from the public at large: they have an image problem.

I think that auto workers (and other unionized factory workers) also have an image problem over and above other unionized workers. But in general, the kinds of work which are more likely to be unionized are looked down upon by people working in offices and even the service industry. Getting your hands dirty doing manual labour has a massive stigma attached to it.

Human society is hierarchical. Call is class-based or whatever, people like to organize themselves in a pecking order. That order isn’t very rational, although it does seem to follow some consistent patterns. That doesn’t mean it’s consistent–two people living in different places working different jobs may each see themselves above the other, while some third person my see himself above both of them, whether or not they agree.

If someone you see as lower than you on the chain of being is making more money than you, you’re likely to want to correct that situation so that it jives with your internal picture of what is right. If you can’t imagine how to ensure you get paid more , you’ll take the second option of ensuring that the other person gets paid less.

The stigma of unions goes beyond that, though, and by now it isn’t even based on imaginary reasons. People just don’t like unions. It’s part of the culture, now. It’s passed on in the oral tradition and in popular media. And like most things, people remember the bad and forget the good, so any time the media spin a union-related news item against the unions, it’s accepted and just reinforces the stereotype.

Unions are like Communists or Islamic extremists or any other stereotype you care to mention. Once people have those stereotypes set down, they are nearly impossible to change. Belief is belief. People don’t like to question their beliefs, no matter how irrational, no matter how pointless, and irrespective of whether those beliefs ultimately do them harm.

That’s why it’s a truism that if you want to change public opinion about anything, you have to get to them when they’re young.

I don’t think the negative mythology of the union can be cured. Labour rights organizers desperately need a new principle of organization, a new focus for collective action. I think they need to forget trying to take care of the worker one industry type at a time. I think they need to focus on changing the rules of the economy as a whole. But since no one really understands the economy–and those who understand it best, or at least, have the most experience in manipulating it, have others’ interests at heart (or wallet)–that’s probably not going to happen.

Comment from charlie
Time: June 30, 2009, 10:25 am

Yes union density is an issue but why is the question. Unions are organizing, perhaps not always in the most efficent manner but check any action plan, policy statement and you willl see priority given to organizing.
That said organizing has not been keeping up. Some due to restrictive labour laws that hamper and take up union resources. You can see this by looking at the US and their current fight to get the EFCA . They are fighting to get it to
Some has to be the trend to amalgation of emloyers , an issue for unions in the public sector , who then use their organizing resources in campaigns to get members from other unions to vote for their unions.
But some is also due to what Jim Sanford wrote about. The corporate/rightwing campaign to blame workers and their union . CAW got it recently and now the public sectors union will . Remind me of the Harris years. BUT we did beat them back and we can if we, the left do it. This is not an ” union ” problem but an worker problem. Unions, community groups, social justice etc need to find common cause again before it is too late.

Comment from Paul Tulloch
Time: June 30, 2009, 11:20 pm

I just listened to the debate linked above with Catherine Swift.

She is quite Hooverish in many aspects of her thinking. Imagine if the world actually worked according to the small business reps like her, wow what a fine world it would be.

That interview reminded me of arguing with my senile dementia inflicted neighbour. WTF is with these right wing flakes, and why do they actually get air time is my question. Next time Jim I hope you would suggest to the host that you be allowed to bring in a good sized fence post so that we the listener are not immersed in such a display of vulgarity as which comes crawling out of those right wing holes.

Nothing she said actually made any sense to me. Not one idea that she uttered had an ounce of logic to it.

Beat on the public sector and blame unions, cut taxes, cut wages, cuts pensions, cut it all and magically somehow we will come out of this rescission. Nice, it is thoughts like that and the right wing bunk which lead the great depression right off the rails into a full blown world war.

I wonder how people within the audience actually interpreted that exchange.

Her agenda was quite apparent.

pt

Comment from d
Time: July 1, 2009, 6:08 pm

All government jobs should pay the going rate of a private sector equivalent. I’m a cook, and I pay taxes so another cook gets three times the pay I get? That means it takes the all the taxes from 2 private sector cooks to bank roll the single public sector cook’s salary. I want my taxes to go to health care. I hope the city breaks the union.

Comment from Dave Lennox
Time: July 1, 2009, 6:59 pm

I discuss current events with several of my co-workers on a daily basis. A few of them are ardent listeners of right wing talk radio. It’s not hard to tell which topics are covered that day by the hard-right “angles” on the labour issue responses that I hear. Inevitably, the radio host or guest has seized upon a single aspect of the issue and blown it completely out of proportion while intentionally avoiding any attempt to provide a global view to the audience. I need to add here that we work in a large foreign-owned corporation with several facilities in Canada, some of whom are unionized. We are paid relatively well and we know we can thank the unionized plants for the level of wages we receive.
My own opinion is that the sole source for the animosity towards unionized workers is good old-fashioned envy with the right-wing mainstream media fanning the flames. I am reminded of the Avro Arrow debacle. In the period just before the cancellation there was an intense negative media campaign against the company that fell on fertile ground. The public concensus was that Avro employees were paid far more than other workers, were a drain on the public purse and that they deserved to be cut down to the norm. Post cancellation analysis showed that Avro workers were actually paid less than the average. We workers are our own worst enemies.In my own opinion, if unionized workers actually are paid more that other workers it is because their unions have been able to protect them from the wage gap that the corporate elite have engineered.

Comment from Sandwichman
Time: July 1, 2009, 11:41 pm

Read the comments to Sid Ryan’s op-ed in the Star sorted by “Most Agreed”.

http://www.thestar.com/comment/article/659087#Comments

Who will be the first to pay “real sympathetic attention to the ideas of others”?

Comment from JC
Time: July 2, 2009, 4:08 am

The blame game is really a sad reality.

Comment from Robert in Montreal
Time: July 2, 2009, 7:05 am

I think a large part of the negative public opinion towards unions can be explained by the extremely poor coverage they receive from the media in North America, 90% of the media being owned by…guess who?

We rarely hear about private sector strikes where an employer blatantly breaks labor laws in an attempt to break a union and drastically reduce benefits, working conditions, and/or wages, such as the 11 month lockout of Petro Canada refinery workers in Montreal.

Instead, we tend to hear about disputes where public money is involved, such as public sector strikes, or labor disputes in the auto sector. Instead of sympathizing with the union, the public is put into a situation where they feel as if they are getting fleeced by union demands, and thus hostility towards unions is generated.

I really think that unions have to go on a public opinion offensive in North America. Economic conditions will worsen, yes, but one cannot rely upon this to turn the tide of public opinion, especially when the tide is so strongly against unions. TV and newspaper ads are great, but visibility in the community through charity work, volunteering, etc, builds the kind of one-to-one relationships (and respect) that media propaganda can do nothing against.

We also need new ideas about how to organize temporary and low-wage workers, and the self-employed. An interesting idea I heard about for organizing these types of workers was by offering them the ability to purchase benefits cheaply (through group-buys) that they would normally receive if they had a permanent job. Essentially, the workers would be part of a benefits cooperative. Along with this, the “union” would lobby politicians on issues important to temporary workers, low wage workers, and the self-employed, such as affordable child-care, higher minimum wages, a fairer tax code for the self-employed, etc. As a result of doing this, these “unions” would promote these issues (and their importance) to their members and generate a sense of common purpose and a shared collective experience.

Comment from Rentier Fungicide
Time: July 2, 2009, 1:00 pm

I am a devotee of Jim Stanford, but isn’t he really obscuring the issue a bit here? He is clearly quite right that unions are not getting the respect they deserve. Yet, Canadians are not stupid, and don’t necessarily make blanket judgements about unions, instead preferring to judge individual unions on specific grounds (say, in relation to particular behaviour of unions in contract negotiations). Take the Toronto public employees’ strike:

If I were a parent who, as a result of the strike, could now not afford daycare for my child, or for that matter could not find any suitable provider at all in the short term, I would have great reason to be angry with that specific union. Far from contributing to mass purchasing power, the union, by its instransigeance, may merely force the parent in question to risk either running up personal debt (to pay for private temporary daycare) or perhaps actually lose his/her employment (because some parents may have no option but to stay home with a child).

It is all very well to say that this is all about employers’ and government’s intransigeance and dishonesty (which is, of course, the case with how autoworkers have been treated), but the Toronto public employees are hurting Torontonian parents TODAY, in the middle of a recession.

Now, I should like to see how anyone can justify banking sick days on the grounds that it somehow supports effective demand. Isn’t the whole point about sick day banking that it is to happen at the end or your career? The union might well have more support among the public if, instead of trying to bank sick days, which unions have thankfully procured us to protect workers who are actually SICK, it asked to replace sick day banking with shorter working hours or shorter work weeks for the same pay. Not only would one be talking about immediate benefits to Toronto’s employees, but there might actually result a requirement for the hiring of more employees. Which might have a positive effect on effective demand and mass purchasing power.

In addition, isn’t there a great danger of falsely assuming that Canadians necessarily buy into a simplistic either/or approach to unions: it is perfectly possible for someone to be pissed off at Toronto’s public employees for wanting to bank sick days, which confers little or no benefit on anyone today, as WELL as be furious with governments for not, say, doing more to protect autoworkers incomes, or for not spending more on childcare or on other social spending that can support effective demand.

In the 1930s, deflation made the real incomes of public employees (or at least of those who remained employed by the government) rise significantly. But as that is the case, public employees should be wary of engaging in those strike actions which, in a recession, risk raising economic uncertainty for those NOT on the public payroll.

Comment from Sandwichman
Time: July 2, 2009, 2:09 pm

Rentier Fungicide wrote: The union might well have more support among the public if, instead of trying to bank sick days, which unions have thankfully procured us to protect workers who are actually SICK, it asked to replace sick day banking with shorter working hours or shorter work weeks for the same pay.

My view is that unions, seduced (or made comatose?) by Keynesian fiscal stimulus, have basically fumbled the shorter working time ball. Part of the problem has been that mainstream economics has incorporated an ideological polemic against shorter working time. Another part of the problem has come from the lure of the money illusion. Keynes himself only saw fiscal stimulus as a stop-gap and upheld working less as the ultimate solution to full-employment.

It seems to me that in climbing on the fiscal stimulus bandwagon unions have inadvertently bought into a “junior partner” role in an ideological frame that inevitably blames the junior partner when something goes wrong. A lot of the popular resentment toward unions is fueled by disappointment and disillusionment rather than ignorance or fundamental hostility.

Comment from Indrani
Time: July 3, 2009, 9:41 pm

Absolutely fantastic debate! We absolutely need more of those debates for the public to see more critically what is actually going on. Mind you, unfortunately I’m not sure that it would change many minds on the business side, who would like to see the continued decline and attack on the public sector.

Comment from Nick Falvo
Time: July 4, 2009, 7:54 am

Great job on The Current, Jim! Gosh–I’ve never heard you being accused of “filibustering” before. I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Comment from z alexandra plaskin
Time: July 4, 2009, 9:11 am

anti-union sentiments are nothing new; while they’re usually inspired and fueled by those who run and profit from business, they also highlight our true lack of any sense of practical social justice

in most union-management disputes, public discussion rarely focuses on the reasons for the dispute, particularly whether the union’s goals are reasonable in a just society; humans find more consolation in bitching about how some union’s reaction to workplace injustice is inconveniencing them

how dare unionists demand fair and humane treatment! don’t they know they lost all their rights to justice when they joined the union? and especially if their work provides goods of services to the public generally, or some identifiable segment of society; our convenience is paramount, and if it means they must work 60 hours per week at minimum wage so be it!

and with this common mindset, who better to blame when the going gets tough than those selfish unionists?

Comment from R.MacAulay
Time: July 4, 2009, 1:14 pm

While i don’t presuppose myself to have special knowledge on any of these issues, my take is entirely unscientific and purely anecdotal. Being a member of a union myself and being married to a a city of Toronto union member (presently on strike), whom I know unequivocally works very hard in a stressful environment (one which oddly receives very little press coverage), it might be fair to say that I have a slight bias but for that I make no apologies, as the one thing painfully evident among the innumerable commentaries everywhere is their high emotional content. Particularly disturbing to me, is the abject lack of integrity displayed by the media in the pursuit of sensationalizing for ratings and profit and their unmistakable political bent whose benefactors most assuredly are not among their listeners (other than for what might be the occasional delight of flavouring their handiwork).
For the record, a fact which receives very little coverage, the accrued sick time which is paid out at retirement represents 50% of the actual sick days unused. Certainly an ample benefit but one which proved equally attractive to the employer as it instilled an incentive in the employee not to use their days ’frivolously’. Many workers, who through the years (and it takes a minimum 25 years service to accrue a net 6 months sick time payout, actually 12 months not used) did not ’take advantage’ of their sick time allotment (owing to good health as well as probity) anticipated this payout as a boost to their retirement years. This was a mutually agreed to contractual arrangement which has been in existence for many years. The city, no doubt faced with an aging work force and an “unfunded liability”, sees the recessionary climate as an opportunity to strip away this benefit. David Miller, highly touted as a friend to unions, has himself been seduced by the opportunistic times but may have opened a Pandora’s box of un pent frustrations which leaves the so called ‘fiscal conservatives’ salivating at the possibilities (see a new ‘Harrisite’ elected to lead Ontario ‘progressive’ conservatives).
A few final points. Firstly, when working, ordinary people receive ‘liveable wages’ (no one is getting rich working in a union) everyone benefits as these people pay into the tax system (someone making $33/hr. pays $14-$16,000 dollars a year in income tax alone, as well as, tax on everything they spend). Many self-employed people I know rely heavily on ‘working’ people to patron their services, as well, many of them take every opportunity to avoid paying taxes (i.e. cash arrangements) which in ‘good times’ translates into fairly ‘lucrative’ lifestyles. I, for one, do not begrudge these people when economic times are good and they’re enjoying the benefits; whereas ‘contracted’ employees who work under ‘fixed’ arrangements, which might imply a degree of security, do not see their wages or benefits change notably: that’s the choice they’ve made, to each their own, according to their own set of circumstances. Other people who work in non-unionized environments (of which I have worked many jobs) have a considerably harder time making ends meet, no doubt. However, without a system of ‘checks and balances’, without a voice representing working people, the abhorrent ‘left’, what hope might any of us have for productive, full lives with the heavy boot of capitalism pressing down on us. Democracy itself is not without its shortcomings but should we abandon it entirely when things do not work in our favour? How can we begrudge those who, like ourselves, rightly or wrongly, fight for fairness and principled treatment? The anger and bitterness is truly disheartening and the hour is dark indeed but let us not imagine that social activism is somehow ‘bloated entitlement’. Collective bargaining with the possibility of withdrawing services is the cornerstone of empowering working class people and to take that away is to put all the power back in the hands of the ‘hidden elite’ whose morality is a spreadsheet.
Many today will only see their standard of living endure through inheritance; what inheritance might we leave our children as we fight among ourselves to attain the lowest common denominator?
Which of course leads to the salient point, one which I am in total agreement with, that unions need to do more to fight for all working people, not just the ‘chosen few‘. Their credibility has suffered immeasurably as they themselves struggle to justify their existence under the onslaught of public scorn largely propagated by the fallout from right wing initiatives such as globalization, free trade, de-regulation, etc, etc. Its no wonder why the unions might find themselves shrinking from the challenge; made the scapegoats at every turn, they struggle to protect their own and justify their existence. They don’t seem to have many friends out there but they should not relent from striving to reach out, no matter how daunting the task. Divide and conquer, the age old strategy, is ever so effective, as I fear we will find, should we continue to tear each other down.

Comment from CartoonCoyote
Time: July 5, 2009, 12:03 pm

I’m neither an economist nor a psychologist, Jim, but I think one of the concepts useful in explaining the current scenario is “Stockholm syndrome” (maybe there’s a touch of “battered person syndrome”, as well.)

Comment from Marina DeLuca
Time: July 9, 2009, 5:25 pm

“Is it simply that misery loves company?”

I think people have gone into debt to have the trappings of wealth. The idea that wealth is within their grasp, despite the fact that it is negative saving/debt, allows them to identify more with Paris Hilton, than Rosie the Riveter!

What a sad sad world if the lives we glimpse through television and the media are completely inaccessible to the rest of us. The problem is that this wealth is beyond our reach. Many regulations protect those wielding economic power from competion. Monsanto discourages small organic family farms with occasional lawsuits, when their genetic materials waft on over to heirloom crops.

Although, I am encouraged by the Fair Trade Coffee that seems to have become mainstream recently, it is just the tip of the iceberg. We just aren’t ready to admit we need “fair trade” in every aspect of our lives. Maybe we would be paying union workers to make our clothes, and shoes if we weren’t confused by the high cost of such items, which is money paid to advertising and of course profits. We certainly pay enough for these items that profits could be reduced without being obliterated!

Comment from Rick Battams
Time: July 10, 2009, 1:15 am

“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.”

Yes, Jim, Misery loves company. But those miserable people didn’t just materialize with the recent global meltdown. They’ve been busy ingoring and/or adding to all the nasty little actions and attitudes that having been blowing and tumbling together with the neoliberal wind and which finally coalesced into the big, destructive ball it’s become. Well, Some of the mob may have been relatively quiescent, waiting for something – such as like-minded uncaring, bored people (including law and order types) – to inspire them with their own troublemaking, thus sparking their inner beasts. Still…

I fear that the mob is getting to us and ‘that’ is as bad as anything. I don’t really think anything’s new in the attitude of a lot of people, qualitatively anyway. (If the majority is as bedarkened as the minority, What’s left for God to care about?) There’s not much love or critical thinking or humility out there. There’s lots of machismo and blinding anger however. But for some folks, that’s a normal state. Don’t forget that, because you may notice that angry, miserable people seem so happy and content being that way. You’re not imagining things. You can be happy being happy or happy being miserable. But for goodness sake, Don’t be jealous of those who are comfortable in their blind anger and ignorance! Keep your principles.

If I’m right, then reactions like that reflected in this article, which valiantly but uselessly point out the simple facts that should make an impression on normal thinking people with hearts, are, perversely, the sort of responses to snarling mobs that feeds their frenzy, something I think it would be good to keep in mind. Don’t throw your hard-earned pearls of knowledge and insight and wisdom before swine who will, clearly, trample them in the mud. It’s not a repitition of facts that they need.

No, I’m not suggesting that we become silly or stupid or uncaring. Just know your enemy. It should inform your moves.

Stay cool everyone – if it’s who you are.

Comment from rentier fungicide
Time: July 10, 2009, 2:05 pm

R. McAuley writes “the accrued sick time which is paid out at retirement represents 50% of the actual sick days unused. Certainly an ample benefit but one which proved equally attractive to the employer as it instilled an incentive in the employee not to use their days ’frivolously’.”

What a strange conclusion. The truth is that, over time, it would benefit the employer, the worker and the economy if more employees DID use up a few more sick days. So McAuley’s argument does not justify sick day banking, rather the opposite.

Frivolous my ….

Comment from R.MacAulay
Time: July 16, 2009, 5:38 pm

Re. Rentier Fungicide’s remarks, “It is all very well to say that this is all about employers’ and government’s intransigeance and dishonesty (which is, of course, the case with how autoworkers have been treated), but the Toronto public employees are hurting Torontonian parents TODAY, in the middle of a recession.

As I said, speaking strictly from a layman’s point of view,
Positioned under a mantle of pro-unionism while drawing distinctions as to the merits of a benefit program long held by public sector unions right in the middle of a ‘mob driven’ maelstrom of anti-unionism, while purporting a moral authority based on the premise of championing the cause of socially minded ‘Joe public’, seems to me to be contradictory if not a ‘frivolous distraction‘.
That the public’s ire is directed toward the civic workers because their sick banking benefit “confers little or no benefit on anyone today” is, I believe, a fallacious statement, as I‘m sure the many soon to be retiring civic workers would attest.
To suggest that the civic worker’s union is somehow acting in bad conscience, when they are merely exercising their right to strike; to imply that one union’s cause is somehow above reproach whereas another’s is ill-conceived; to presume an air of superiority, truly flies in the face of solidarity and is a sad reminder of just how entrenched our culture of selfishness has become. Perhaps next we shall say that the teachers union’s retirement benefits are not providing an immediate societal benefit and should be relinquished forthwith, or that whenever a strike action has a detrimental economic impact it should be deemed illegal (which would exclude auto sector unions because, as everyone knows, when they strike there is no economic impact, or at least none that directly affects kids in a daycare!). To imply that civic workers should simply acquiesce to concessions which were hard won and long held, because of a recession and because they have a higher social responsibly, especially when all other public sector unions (including city councillors) were not held to the same standard, is to mock unionism in general and undermines the entire principal of collective bargaining.

Comment from Rentier Fungicide
Time: July 16, 2009, 10:27 pm

R.MacAulay: if your view of ‘unionism’ is one in which ‘concessions’ are justified merely because they are hard won and long held, without considering their substance nor the social impact of a strike, then you should not be surprised that the Canadian public grows unimpressed with unionism. In the sort of collective “I’m alright Jack” model you propose, why should Torontonians give a damn about civic workers? Civic workers do, of course, have the right to strike; citizens equally have the right to disapprove of strike actions which hurt them. Support for unions is based on an implicit bargain with the wider public that there is a broader social benefit from collective bargaining. I should like to know what broader social benefit from sick day banking is sufficient to justify the hardships now being imposed on Torontonians by the continuance of the strike. If the union were fighting for something of genuine value, such as job security, shorter working hours or workplace health and safety, then City Hall would surrender in the face of public support for the union. But having gone this far, City Hall will not now turn back — the Toronto public will not let it do so: the strike will fail because the union’s intransigeance over sick day banking has completely undermined public support for Toronto civic workers.

Comment from R.MacAulay
Time: July 17, 2009, 11:26 pm

R. Fungicide: Its not an ‘I’m alright Jack‘ attitude;
Its more visceral than that, more like ‘back off Jack’, and why not? Sick day banking is a part of their overall compensation package and was in all likelihood used by management as leverage in previous negotiations to win wage concessions. Now it comes to light that the employer did not see fit to properly fund that commitment and is faced with an ‘unfunded liability‘; so should the union simply capitulate because the ‘optics’ are not in the their favour?
What really annoys me is your contention that the auto sector unions were somehow more devout and selfless in their pursuit of improving their members’ working conditions. Generally, I believe that their position was that by improving their situation they raised the bar for everyone and thereby served the ‘broader social good’. I would not dispute that contention, but I suspect that many in the general public would. Though they might not have had sick day banking , their’s was a generous arrangement nonetheless. I, myself, worked at GM for a short time back in the ’80’s and I well recall my union ‘orientation’ session (including a cogent film with Ed Asner). As I left the meeting, I was walking beside the union representative and I said (inquisitively and perhaps somewhat sceptically); “that was great….but what do you say about the 23% absenteeism rate at this plant (at that time the highest in N.A. and tacitly sanctioned by the union) and he said, “That’s a social problem”. At the time I found that response rather dissatisfying but through the years I have come to better apprehend his meaning. The point is, that to suggest the auto sector unions sought ‘benefit packages’ that would meet the test of public scrutiny is highly doubtful.
To interpret the recent auto sector bailouts as indicative of public support for auto sector unions is equally fallacious, I believe. From my viewpoint, the only reason there was a bailout at all was that the public, as well as government and business, correctly feared the fallout of an industry wide failure. In fact, it is routinely suggested in mainstream media (particularly one’s ‘supporting the tax paying public’) that the auto unions were the architects of their own ‘demise‘; an erroneous assertion but one that appeals to public sentiments. Suffice to say that the mood out there is against unions in general and the idea of shorter work weeks for the same pay or greater job security would most certainly be met with scoffs of “overpaid/under worked… ‘they want jobs for life!, ..they’re pampered, etc. etc.”
Moreover, with regard to the implicit ‘social contract’ unions hold “with the wider public that there is a social benefit from collective bargaining”, I would submit to you that the benefit is in collective bargaining, itself, which serves to enhance the democratic process and empower working class people thereby levelling a field which has been historically weighted against them. As I suggested earlier, in a democracy, if one particular party represents a set of values which do not align with the prevailing public sentiments, we do not ban that party out of existence, nor suggest that they are acting in bad faith, misappropriating the entire process; we exercise our democratic right to vote; so clearly, the public has the right to voice their opinions, no question. In the final analysis, however, neither party truly loses and the broader public good is served as long as the system– in this case collective bargaining– which supports democracy, remains intact. The devil might be in the details but the big picture justifies the expense.

Comment from Brian Dell
Time: July 18, 2009, 4:15 pm

Anybody following the health care debate currently going in the US would be able to see that it is not the Republicans (who don’t have the votes) who are killing health care reform but the unions.

It isn’t just the Economist who has fingered unions as nefarious players (in the July 16 article “Soaking the rich”) but progressive bloggers like Ezra Klein. Have you seen stopwydenshealthtax.com? The unions are going after this liberal Democratic Senator’s health plan because it would replace the employer tax exclusion with a tax deduction available to all Americans. That’s too much benefit going to America’s non-unionized underclass for the unions to tolerate. And so the House has come up with a bill that, instead of pursuing that reform endorsed by all economists who are not taking money from unions, tries to increase coverage for the underclass by soaking the rich.

Comment from Kelsey Kirkland
Time: July 19, 2009, 5:34 pm

@Brian Dell wrote:
And so the House has come up with a bill that, instead of pursuing that reform endorsed by all economists who are not taking money from unions, tries to increase coverage for the underclass by soaking the rich.

Wow! Who are these non-union endorsed economists? Are these the same bunch of 250 prominent economists who warned the congress and critics of Federal Reserve Bank (which is as federal as Federal Express) to back off from questioning?

When these Commercial Economists shield the fiasco creating entities, in spite of the fact they have been further rewarded with more responsibilities to monitor the financial stability of a system in wake of unprecedented meltdown due to massive leverage,exotic instruments lacking any regulatory oversight, I would question their Ethics?

target=”_blank”>Experts Tell Congress to Lay Off the Fed

[Arguing that the independence of the central bank is “essential for controlling inflation,” the petition urges Congress not to meddle when the Fed decides to raise short-term interest rates or reverse its purchases of Treasury debt and mortgage-backed securities, which will tend to push up longer-term interest rates.

Some members of Congress have proposed to extend the powers of the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to audit Fed monetary policy; others have questioned the legitimacy of the governance of the 12 regional Federal Reserve banks, which are overseen by private-sector boards of directors largely chosen by commercial bankers.
Criticism of the Fed by lawmakers has come from several directions, though most say they want the Fed to retain its traditional independence when it comes to making monetary policy.
The petition has been signed by three winners of the Nobel Prize in economics — Daniel McFadden, Robert Merton and Eric Maskin — and five former presidents of the American Economics Association as well as the current president, Angus Deaton of Princeton University, and the president-elect, Robert Hall of Stanford University. The president of the American Finance Association, Darrell Duffie of Stanford, and four of his predecessors also signed, as did two former Fed governors, Laurence Meyer and Frederic Mishkin……..]

It is the Peterson Foundations’ billionaire founder who is advocating a phased in and tiered pay for use healthcare, infact this is a specific agenda of the foundation.

As for Unions stalling the healthcare reform, the irony is not lost here. Perhaps the Economists have forgotten that deficit in healthcare funding was one of the reasons Unions were forced to become stakeholders in the restructured Chrysler and GM. Otherwise who in the world takes such a large risk of putting all their eggs in one basket, that too in a risky venture, these commercial economist definitely would not undertake such a large personal risk. Just another blame game on part of these incompetent economists who are failure in their own right having surrendered all sense and ethics to corporate greed and left the workers and ordinary people at the mercy of these devious corporations.

And lets not forget the very first hedge fund to go down Long Term Capital had two Noble Prize laureates on its board, lost US$4.6billion in less than four months and was supervised by the Federal Reserve. I would give more credence to what the Unions have to say than these Prominent Commercial Economists and Failed Geniuses!

Comment from Brian Dell
Time: July 22, 2009, 11:16 pm

The BIS was relatively prescient in seeing the problems coming and it is an independent body, not a political one. What’s needed is accordingly empowerment of independent expertise, not politicians. Monetary policy is so loose right now the Fed is going to have to tighten soon, and if that gets stopped for political reasons it would be a disaster.

But back to the issue of US healthcare reform, MIT Economist Jonathan Gruber says
“It is clear to me… that one source of financing dominates the others: reducing the expensive, regressive, and inefficient subsidization of employer-sponsored insurance. Financing coverage expansions by scaling back the exclusion would be highly progressive and would reduce a major driver of overinsurance and excessive health spending in the U.S.”

This is precisely what the unions are blocking. The unions want US employers puffed up with cash provided by self-employed and unemployed (including leisured) taxpayers so they can suck Cadillac benefits of these employers.

The unions are accordingly the primary obstacle against cost control and, in turn, against a good CBO score. Indeed:
“Douglas Elmendorf, head of the Congressional Budget Office, told Congress last week that “the cost curve was being raised.” … Elmendorf favored limiting tax-free employer-provided health benefits, but organized labor remains strongly opposed.”

Comment from Kelsey Kirkland
Time: July 24, 2009, 4:29 am

Contrary to what is reported commonly in the media, BIS harbours doubts about financial stability of the system as it stands. Major concerns are the underlying problems in the financial sector. The BIS report states that worries about “ext strategies are misplaced and the accountability and transparency needs to be addressed.

BIS Report Warns that Main Problems Have Not Been Solved

If the markets keep introducing innovative untested unregulated instruments or “fads” there will always be another meltdown like failure of Franklin National Bank in ’74 or Savings and loan crisis in 80’s or the continuing current debacle of subprime mortgages. Independent expertise and self-regulation has clearly not worked, if the banks are turning repeatedly to the government to rescue them from self-inflicted crisis’, politicians are exercising responsibility by questioning the system and by proposing measures and safeguards. No doubt about that.

The academic paper on taxing employer provided health benefits to raise revenues is just one of many ideas floated around. To focus exclusively on this as a means of funding the plan and ignoring the fact that the insurance providers are posting record profits in recession and also raising premiums is bypassing the fact that there are many other areas and issues to be addressed. Mainly in integrating the system to cut overlaps and provide more efficient delivery and replacing patent drugs with generic drugs where applicable.

If the Unions are objecting to the taxation of their health benefits they are Exercising their Democratic Rights. And this spin on terms like “suck Cadillac benefits” is smearing and denigrating and portrays the employees as unworthy of deserving universal health benefits. Since the term inadvertently implies autoworkers might as well address the concern that the GM workers are likely to have an older workforce who regularly face stressful conditions and are likely charged higher(Cadillac) premiums compared to a younger workforce in a new plant of their competitors. And why exclude the workforce of non-unionised firms who too oppose this measure? Just because they are not organised or are Republican supporters does not exclude the fact they have same reservations about taxation on their healthcare benefits.

Historically and presently, Unions have been in favour of nationalised healthcare. So to accuse Unions as primary obstacle against cost control/healthcare reform is despicable, when the healthcare industry whose main priority is profits is spending obscene amounts for campaigning:

Sickening Amounts of Healthcare Lobbying

The healthcare industry is waging a “record-breaking influence campaign,” spending “more than $1.4 million a day on lobbying,” reports the Washington Post. “The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) doubled its spending to nearly $7 million in the first quarter of 2009, followed by Pfizer, with more than $6 million” spent in just three months. Among the lobbyists are many former Congressional staffers and even former members of Congress, including Dick Armey and Richard Gephardt

No talk about the federal subsidies to pharma for R&D by those proposing to tax benefits.

Not to mention that there are twice as many Conservative think tanks than liberal ones, and with generally more money. The top 20 conservative think tanks now spend more money than all of the “soft money” contributions to the Republican party.

Think tanks>/a>

Doug Elmendorf has presented only a preliminary report based on what the healthcare experts have discussed with the CBO, and the argument against him is that he has isolated the ledger of the Fed govt from the context of the entire system and has not reflected on the savings from modernising the system and from better delivery of healthcare services.

“However, one of them, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), maintained that one of Elmendorf’s recommendations — taxing health insurance benefits — was no longer under consideration by the committee because of opposition from House and Senate leaders, organized labor, and some segments of private business.”

Well, there wasn’t nearly enough debate about the costs of war in the house and the price of contraband drugs from Afghanistan has not gone up. Why don’t the Economists research where are the revenues ending up from the restored trade?

The Unions are easy target to attack by conservatives, while tax breaks exist for negotiated deals such as: Mulroney paid tax six years later on only $112,500 of the $225,000 he admits he took.

Before the loophole was closed by Clinton, J Templeton of the Templeton mutual fund wealth renounced his US citizenship in 1968 to avoid taxes. He was said to be a devout man and his legacy foundation awards annual financial prize of $1.6 million for research about proof of higher reality. Meanwhile the goth-rock and heavy metal figured:
This World is a Vampire……………..

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