When I was ten years old, my parents sat me down and with tight lips they explained that Daddy’s union was on strike and so we would be “tightening our belt” for a little while.
“How long?” I wanted to know. I wasn’t sure exactly what “tightening our belts” meant, but since my parents were usually worried about money I was pretty sure that it couldn’t be good.
He shrugged impatiently. His anger and frustration were all over him. My dad didn’t talk much, so when he did, I listened intently. “Could be a couple of weeks,” he said. “Could be for months.”
Months seemed like an eternity to my ten year old mind. “Why is the union on strike?” I scowled. Surely if the situation were understood, it could be fixed!
“Well,” Dad explained (having become accustomed to his strange, too-smart-for-her-own-good daughter, who always had to know the reason why) “the company wants to reduce our pensions because they’re having financial troubles, and the union is having none of it. I’m not happy about it.”
“Why not?” I demanded.
“I just don’t think that striking was a good idea,” he said honestly. “I think it’s going to cost us a lot more than we’ll gain.”
“Well, if you don’t want to strike,” I suggested shrewdly, thinking of how much better it would be for my family individually, “why don’t you just go to work then?”
I never forgot my father’s response. His eyes flashed and he half stood up in his seat. “Never,” he hissed. “I am not a scab.”
“Dear,” cautioned my mother as she gave him a stern look.
I was stricken. I didn’t understand why my father had become so angry so quickly. “I’m sorry, ” I apologized. “What is a ‘scab’? Why do you have to do what the union tells you?”
His shoulders relaxed a bit. “A scab is someone who breaks a picket line when the workers of a company have decided that all work should stop. They’re traitors. The only means that workers have to protect their rights is to stand together, so if we don’t stand together, we have no rights. And they’re teaching you about how democracy works at school, right?”
“Yes.” Of course, they don’t seem to teach that to ten-year-olds anymore, but they still were then.
“Well, the union voted to strike,” he said firmly. “And I’m part of the union, so I have to respect the vote. You have to support the decision of the majority. That’s how democracy works.”
When I think about that time, I seem to remember my parents fighting a bit more, and some more frequent Kraft Dinner meals (which made me happy; I loved Kraft Dinner), and that was about the limit of the changes over the next few months that stand out in my mind. But the importance of unions was a lesson I never forgot.
So when the teachers went on strike at my school a few months later I supported them. They took the time to explain that a lot of what they were striking about had to do with class sizes; as well as some personal things, like job cuts and wages, since the BC government was in the middle of a period of scarcity politics. School wasn’t that far and in those days a child was actually allowed to go out in the daytime if they were home before dusk, so I stood in their picket lines with them. They eventually went back to work, but the fight continued. In 2002 the current BC Premier, then the Minister of Education, Christy Clark passed a law that denied the union the right to bargain class size and composition. The fight between the BC Teachers’ Union and the BC Government continues to this day.
The eighties were a time of unbridled right wing capitalism. Ronald Reagan was President of the United States; Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister of Canada; Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of Britain. They preached the gospel that the corporate owned press and the billionaire-funded economic think tanks now pour into the ears of our leaders like poison; deregulation is the key. Labour is expensive. You have to support “trickle down economics” if you want to boost the economy.
All of these policies resulted in the Great Recession of the 1990s, the world I, from my working class background, graduated into. And one of the most significant propaganda campaigns that the Corporate Choir managed to inject into the public consciousness during that time, which we have yet to outgrow, is the myth of “Big Unions.”
“Big Unions lock up the labour market,” say the corporatists. “They make unrealistic demands upon industry until it’s not profitable to run the industry anymore. And look at all their big pensions and their high wages and their lunch breaks and vacation pay! You guys aren’t getting any of that, are you? Why should the unions do so much better than you do?”
Except that the Big Unions that they talk about aren’t nearly what we’ve been led to believe. Of the 14 largest national unions in Canada, one is a media performers’ union and another is a merged union that represents auto workers and people who work in communications, energy, and paper. And it didn’t save them from job loss when Conservative (politically expedient) budget cuts hit the CBC, nor the closing of several Canadian auto manufacturing plants.
Of the 14 largest national unions in Canada, five are teachers’ unions, two are postal unions, three are unions for public service employees, one is a nurse’s union, and one is an office workers’ and professionals’ union. Most of these unions have voted to strike in the past ten years. All of the teachers, the postal workers, the nurses, and the public service employees were just legislated back to work by the government that oversees their industry, since they were deemed to be “essential services,” without any kind of attempt to even negotiate worker rights or needs. Even in the rare cases where arbitration decided in favour of the unions, new legislation just arbitrarily changed their bargaining rights, and they had to take their governments to court. And the public let them get away with this, because the public was jealous of the benefits and higher wages that those unions had, and they did not.
What a beautifully executed bait-and-switch! Instead of hating the company we work for because they pay us slave wages, we hate the union because they don’t work hard enough for us. Instead of hating corporate owners for lobbying our governments to suppress the labour market by relaxing regulations, we hate the union guys for making more money than we do. Instead of demanding that shareholders crop the salaries of their Boards of Directors, or accept slightly lesser dividends, we get mad because company unions won’t let them reduce wages and cut pensions. Instead of getting angry at the corporations for hiring illegal immigrants or Temporary Foreign Workers at slave wages and abusive conditions, we get mad at the immigrants themselves. The corporatists have effectively turned us on one another.
Rather than asking why the union guys get all of the benefits they do – benefits that, once upon a time, were considered just decent and proper working conditions and compensations – what we should be doing is asking why the rest of us don’t. And when unions act on behalf of the people they represent, we should support their action, rather than bitching because we find it inconvenient. If we did that, they would support us in our struggle for the same rights, especially when we chose to form our own unions. There’s no reason why we couldn’t have the Retail Employees’ Union of North America; or the Gas Station Attendant’s Union. And those unions would have power to get things done.
This weekend Canada Post is threatening to strike. They’re striking because Canada Post wants to get rid of door-to-door delivery and not pay their employees overtime for overtime work. While the company is claiming that they can’t compete in the market because of this, their first quarter profit was $44 million dollars because of their growing parcel service – so I don’t believe them. Because I believe in the rights of the worker, I will be temporarily shutting down my Etsy shop until the strike is lifted. I will not be sending packages by Purolator. I am not a scab.