Friday, February 22, 2013

Some thoughts on why people are not enamoured of unions right now

Reading today that the recently privatized garbage collectors here in Toronto voted to reject unionization does not come as a surprise, but it is a pretty depressing result nevertheless.

As I have written before, I feel as though the way in which Torontonians think about our garbage collectors is a very clear example of the general state of incoherent mean-spiritedness in the city when it comes to the public sector.

This isn't terribly surprising, given that there has been a fairly long-term (and highly successful) assault on the idea of the public sector being anything more than a bunch of lazy unionized assholes who are literally stealing money from the honest taxpayer.  As a former civil servant, and now part of the broader public sector, I still get into arguments with people who. on the basis of having had to wait for an hour to get their driver's license renewed, conclude that the government "can't do anything right".

Beyond the fact that this is a no-win argument (if the renewal office was staffed to the gills, wouldn't that be more wasteful? or maybe it's 20 years of attrition to pay for those tax cuts that had some effect?), it points to a much plainer fact - nearly no one in Canada ever has to deal with any level of government.  This is why most people go to city hall to get their passport, or e-mail the province to ask about their local property taxes.

The reality is that most Canadians don't have a clue as to how their governments work.  And what's funny about this is that they don't really have to, because we live in a society where our governments, even if I really don't like them, still manage to make the quality of life here in Canada pretty good.  But the quality of our public service has now come back to bite the public sector in the ass, because it's actually done a pretty good job of uh, doing a good job.

Anyway, I say all this in part because when the garbage strikes happened here in Toronto, it shocked people into remembering that there was this whole public sector, and it did all kinds of stuff for them, like picked up their garbage, looked after their children, or provided cheap recreation for them. 

However, in a spirit remarkably consistent with the laughter and derision towards protestors during the G20, rather than thinking that outside workers might have as much dignity as say, someone who works at a bank, we as a city, very loudly and clearly, told them to shut up and get back to doing our dirty work, and how dare they think that they deserved what they negotiated over the years, like all those previous agreements that no one noticed, and where all these "benefits" accrued. 

"I mean what", the civic body thought to itself, "do the outside workers think union negotiations are some kind of good faith contract between two parties?"

So it does not surprise me that the workers at GFL did not unionize.  I don't think it helped the union's cause when their initial strategy was to argue that GFL would do a bad job, going so far as to set up a hotline for people to call to complain.  Not a great idea, given that the GFL garbage collectors might actually think the union is accusing them of doing a bad job (which is kind of was...).

But when you think about it, I suspect most of those who work for GFL were here for the last strike, and that the last thing they wanted to do was to rock the boat right now.  I doubt that GFL even really had to press them that hard - it was ordinary Joe Toronto who scared them into rejecting the union.  I mean, right now they are the worse-off heroes of the city!   Way to take one for the team, ladies and gentlemen of GFL!

That being said, I'm sure things are probably pretty good for them right now - as is common with capitalism, there is always the opening gambit, when the company is flush with cash and able to show its workers that they can offer similar benefits without union protection  (Remember the early days of the National Post?).  But it will get worse, and GFL will ask (and likely receive) more money from the uh, taxpayer, to increase its profits while keeping wages "competitive" and costs low.

This is the perversity of our civic culture right now, and I can't help but be reminded of Michel Foucault's preface to Anti-Oedipus, when he reminds us of "the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us." (And no, I'm not saying GFL or the workers are fascists like Hitler of Mussolini!!!!!  His comment is about why we enjoy hurting ourselves to assume a particular kind of power)

I am certain, as we all are, that the garbage collectors who voted again unionization all sincerely believe that they will be better off, in the long run, without collective bargaining, because right now, they all probably feel as though they have the power, the power to be on the city's good side, and that the union would take away that power. 

However, just as one of my tyrannical former bosses believed that governments could do away with unions because "they weren't relevant anymore", by simply saying what he said, he unwittingly demonstrated their necessity.

Better luck next time, CUPE 416!

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