Happy Labour Day. It’s all pretty grim
TheStar.com – news/canada/politics
August 31, 2012. By Thomas Walkom, National Affairs Columnist
Another grim Labour Day. The unions are under attack. The middle class is under attack.
This is no coincidence.
Unions are solidly middle-class institutions. True, their rhetoric may be radical. Labour militants still favour rousing songs from the 1930s, such as “Which Side Are You On.”
But in reality, unions are fundamentally conservative. Most today are not trying to break new ground. Instead, they are attempting to hold on — often desperately — to what they have.
Indeed, unions have long been conservative. Nineteenth century unions were a reaction to industrialization, attempting to recreate a world in which skilled craftsmen could control the process of production and hang onto the fruits of their labour.
It’s no surprise then that unions still attempt to influence what are now commonly referred to as management prerogatives. The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, for instance, agreed to Premier Dalton McGuinty’s wage freeze only after being granted the right to determine, through seniority, who could be hired as supply teachers.
In Europe, 19th century socialism gave unions a new language — one that talked explicitly of the working class and suggested a brave new future.
With notable exceptions, such as the avowedly revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, North American labour tended to avoid talk of explicit class conflict. Even today, the language of a Canadian trade union — Brother This and Sister That — owes more to the fraternal lodge than to Karl Marx.
This too should be no surprise. The first North American unions, such as the Knights of Labour, were often modeled on fraternal organizations like the International Order of Odd Fellows and provided similar practical benefits, such as burial insurance.
Labour Day itself grew from an attempt by North American unions to distance themselves from their more radical European cousins, who preferred to celebrate May 1, a day dedicated to the revolutionary struggle against capitalism.
By contrast, Labour Day has always been presented as far more benign.
“Labour Day stands for industrial peace,” the American Federation of Labour’s Samuel Gompers wrote in 1910. “Our labour movement has no system to crush. It has nothing to overturn.”
This is not to say that North American labour lacked radicals. The Depression of the 1930s helped Communists and other revolutionaries organize industrial unions.
But it’s probably worth noting that, thanks to war-related labour shortages, unions made even greater gains in the 1940s.
More to the point, depression and war led to the unstated social compact of the Cold War: Government would allow unions to organize; corporate employers would let workers keep more of what they produced; unions would oppose Communism and maintain social peace.
The reasons for labour’s decline from the 1970s on are well known. Manufacturing has moved to low-wage countries. Non-manufacturing industries are harder to organize.
Now, recession has emboldened business to destroy those remaining union jobs that do exist, either directly or through so-called right-to-work laws that make organizing tough. Caterpillar Inc.’s shutdown of a unionized locomotive plant in London is a classic example,
Governments haven’t yet figured out how to outsource their own employees to China so they are taking on unions by fiat — as Toronto city council did with its garbage workers and McGuinty is doing with teachers.
As unions disappear, so do well-paying, secure jobs. When labour is strong, even non-union shops pay well — just to prevent themselves from being organized. When labour is weak, that pressure evaporates.
As well-paid jobs disappear so does the middle class. A study released this week by the U.S. National Employment Law Project confirms what many suspected: the American jobs being regained since 2008 pay far less than those which were lost.
Sadly, much of the middle-class doesn’t recognize the role that unions play in keeping everyone’s wages at livable levels. A survey done for Public Response (a spin-off from Ottawa’s Rideau Institute) suggests that about 42 per cent of Canadians think unions do little for society at large.
Blinkered thinking. We are all paying the price
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