Union gains are shared by all Canadians

Posted on January 13, 2009 in Debates, Governance Debates

TheStar.com – Opinion/letters – Union gains are shared by all Canadians
January 13, 2009

Re:Unrealistic unions must change in uncertain economic climate, Jan. 11

Angelo Persichilli makes a number of claims that cannot go unchallenged in a newspaper that claims to speak for social justice.

He says unions “rarely … discuss social issues.” Do we live in different cities? Has he forgotten the enormous support the Toronto labour council gave to the $10 minimum wage campaign and for raising social assistance rates across the province? Or its demands that international credentials be recognized and municipal funding increased? Or the role that the CAW union played two years ago against the deportation of Portuguese construction workers? The labour movement in this city speaks on every social issue that affects the lives of working people.

Further, unions do not “disregard others who are not organized.” They try to organize them. There are a number of ongoing attempts to unionize poorly paid workers in this city, notably in building services and hotels. It is unfair to fault unions for low wages earned by unorganized workers. The blame lies with provincial labour laws that make it easier for employers to frustrate the right to form unions and fight for better conditions.

Persichilli assures us, “Nobody can be against an organization that defends working people.” I wish that were true. Unions in Canada have rarely been in a weaker state, or as needed as they are now.

Ian MacDonald, Toronto

I’d like to thank Angelo Persichilli for labeling me and other union members as being elite. I thought only CEOs of banks and automobile companies were elite. I guess that explains why the billionaire owners of Walmart close their stores when their minimum wage employees manage to form a union. They don’t want them to get swelled heads.

Don Biderman, Toronto

Mr. Persichilli’s analysis of unions is at best simplistic. At worst, it is ignorant. He asserts: “There are specific Labour law provisions that protect all workers for being fired without cause.” This is simply not true. There is a complaint mechanism under the federal labour code, but the vast majority of workers operate under provincial labour codes, which have no such provisions (with the exception of Quebec). In these jurisdictions workers can essentially be terminated at the will of the employer.

Mr. Persichilli states: “You can’t bargain for salaries in Detroit without acknowledging the realities of salaries in Brazil or China.” He should keep in mind that unionized workers in Brazil or China don’t even make the equivalent of the minimum wage in Detroit. It is not North American workers who should look to Brazil and China, where working conditions and trade unionism have been brutally suppressed by dictatorships. Brazilian and Chinese workers should aspire to the gains made here. The right to form and belong to trade unions is a human right under the UN charter. Where working people have been allowed to exercise that right, social progress has occurred.

Many people feel the same as Persichilli because they have been fed a steady diet of anti-union animus by the corporate media. They can and do regurgitate it unchallenged almost anywhere. I just didn’t expect to see it in the Star.

Humberto da Silva, Scarborough

This is a thinly disguised disinformational argument for union capitulation to the globalization agenda of the multinational corporations, whose objective is to rule the world by co-opting or disempowering elected governments – and unions.

Persichilli says, “Defending honest principles is a noble exercise, but when those principles part with reality, the entire exercise becomes futile at best.” Realism, my dictionary says, is “acceptance of things as they are.” So is Persichilli saying that when your principles are at odds with existing conditions, the thing to do is abandon your principles? I thought that people developed and stuck with principles in an effort to change unpleasant or unjust realities.

Persichilli’s statement on salaries in Brazil and China is exactly the “race to the bottom” philosophy the corporations have created and profited enormously from through outsourcing and moving offshore: If the Chinese will work for starvation wages then North Americans better get used to the same.

Corporatization is the “reality” Persichilli suggests we give in to. Unions are one of the last bastions fighting this scourge. He neglects to mention that the current world financial crisis was generated by corporate greed, yet those paying for it are the tens of thousands of workers currently losing their jobs, whether unionized or not.

If Persichilli is, as he claims, sympathic to unions and wants them to succeed, his real concern ought to be with the weakening of their influence over the last 20 years and the fact that, according to Labour Canada, just 30.3 per cent of non-agricultural workers were union members in 2007, down from 34.6 per cent a decade ago. Instead, he seems ticked off at so-called “Big Labour.” I’ve got news for him: If it ever existed, it’s long dead.

Terry O’Connor, Toronto

Mr. Persichilli should perhaps seek assistance from a “unionized journalist” to hone his craft. He trots out many of the same hoary and hackneyed arguments union bashers have used since the Thatcher/Reagan era. “Unions defend only workers belonging to their organizations.” Not true. Besides the 40-hour workweek, statutory holidays, health benefits, universal healthcare, pensions, minimum wage, unemployment insurance and a host of laws that make everyone’s workplace safer today, unions have been at the forefront of the peace movement and the human rights movement. Were it not for the labour movement, we’d all be working in Victorian workhouses or Chinese forced labour camps.

Like most union bashers, Mr. Persichilli seems to reserve his disdain for blue collar workers. But there are many professional and business organizations that are unions in all but name and wield much more power and influence in government and society than traditional labour unions.

G.D. Miller, Trenton

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