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On Strike Against Who? Labor Relations Drama Pits Workers Against Communities

Written by Wanda Pasz Wednesday, 01 July 2009

As Toronto finds itself in the second week of a strike by 30,000 municipal workers, members of CUPE Locals 79 and 416, a disturbing scene is unfolding. Although the workers' dispute is with the City, the optics of the strike - what the citizens see both in the media and with their own eyes - paint an ugly picture of strikers pitted against their community.

As the garbage piles up, ugly confrontations between citizens and strikers at temporary garbage drop-off stations can be seen on online and in the mainstream media. A move by the City to set up additional temporary trash drop offs in community parks has led to further confrontations between residents who oppose their neighborhood playgrounds being used as garbage dumps and residents dumping their trash. Ugliness is everywhere and it's leaving its mark on organized labor.

Concurrently, in the border city of Windsor Ontario, a municipal workers' strike is in its third month. Devastated by job losses in the auto industry, this community's efforts to rebuild are not helped by piles of rotting garbage or videos of municipal workers retaliating against citizens trying to clean up a public park by dumping a bag of trash in front of them. The ill-tempered woman in the video is reported to have then rudely berated the citizens for "doing our work".

Public sentiment is rarely with the workers when it comes to public sector strikes but in this case, scorn is being heaped on the strikers with particular zeal. Things aren't helped by the major hot button issue in the dispute - the workers' ability to accrue 18 sick days a year which can be carried and cashed out upon retirement (a benefit that the City wants to replace with a short-term disability plan). A rich benefit even by public sector standards, retention of the cashable sick bank just isn't an issue that's going to get the public tearing up in sympathy. (See Richard Gwyn's recent commentary on the subject).

While CUPE leaders and mainstream unionists shrug this off as "to be expected" and blame the City's demands for a wage freeze and various concessions as sufficient cause for the walkout, incalculable damage is being done to what little faith the majority of the population has in mainstream unions and to the community as a whole. The workers may have legitimate issues and the City's managers may be inept negotiators, the fact remains that it's the people in the community - not the mandarins in City Hall - who are being hurt by what's going on as waste piles up in playgrounds and other workers scramble to find alternate daycare arrangements for their kids. This whole thing is taking on the specter of workers vs. other workers, unions vs. communities. Nothing good will come of it. In the end, the workers will be legislated back to work, a board of arbitration will give them a little of this and a bit less of that. No big gains, no big losses. Nothing that, in hindsight, couldn't have been worked out at the bargaining table. They'll go back to work and life will return to normal but the hard feelings will linger and public disdain for unions will be that much more entrenched.

A backlash may bring a more conservative mayor and city council to City Hall in municpal elections in 2011 and to the provincial legislature at about the same time. Already anti-union sentiment is being stoked in all the usual places. Public sector unions can lament about it or take their heads out of the sand and realize that the labor relations system is leading them off the edge of cliff. They need to look at alternatives to strikes that put pressure on employers to bargain fairly but do not hurt large numbers of other workers and other vulnerable citizens. The rationale behind withdrawal of public services is that it will cause the public to put pressure on politicians and administrators to settle the dispute in a manner favorable to the workers. For this to happen though, the public needs to be onside with the workers and that just doesn't happen anymore. Increasingly public opinion is against them - and calls for mass firings and contracting out of services are on the rise. Maybe it's not fair but it is.

There has always been a gulf between public sector workers and their private sector counterparts, the latter seeing the former as smug, underworked, overpaid and indifferent to realities that are part of life for anyone not on a government payroll. The gulf is going to get even more pronounced as millions of unemployed or underemployed private sector workers find public sector bargaining disputes and the inconveniences they create when talks break down even more difficult to stomach.Given the opportunity - and it will come - to elect public service shrinking politicians who promise to give the perceivedly underworked and overpaid a good dose of reality, they might just go for it. It's happened here before. The survival of decent wages and benefits - not to mention, important services - will require unions like CUPE to take a long hard look at where their fondness for labor relations high drama is taking them.

I've had as thing or two to say over the years about the usefulness (or uselessness) of the strike as an effective means for working people to advance their interests, virtually always concluding that it isn't. With the exception of the massive wave of strikes that swept through the industrial sector in the US in the 1930's and in Canada during the aftermath of the second world war, there is little evidence that for the workers, the pros of striking outweigh the cons. Strikes benefit employers far more than workers who emerge from them poorer, demoralized and unlikely to ever do it again. While the strike provides an endless opportunities for union leaders to get their mugs in the media and pontificate about the nobility of their cause, the employers sit quietly back, count the millions they're saving in labor costs and the millions they continue to rake in from "business as usual". The modern multi-location, multi-national corporate enterprise can weather the longest strikes with little impact on its bottom line. In the private sector, the strike has all but disappeared (look for it to vanish completely in post-financial meltdown period) - nobody wants to end up like these guys.

As much a mainstream union purists recoil from this harsh assessment, the grim reality must be faced. As long as corporations rule the economy and working people are relegated to selling their labour like slaves in a sellers market, striking will be the practical equivalent of slowly starving yourself to prove a point while your master takes the food you're not eating and sells it for further profit. And don't bother looking to the political cliques or the legal country club for help. Collectively they have all - liberals, conservatives, legal establishment -constructed a restrictive framework for workplace relations that forces into bargaining with the masters on a horribly uneven playing field and gives us only one legal option pursing our interests - slow starvation.

Although the reasons for the decline of unions are many, their tenaciously deluded clinging to the strike as a powerful weapon has got to be near the top of the list. Anorexics aside, most people have an instinct against self-starvation.

In the public sector where slow starvation is usually staved off by back to work legislation, unions seem to be using their considerable strength to find other means of self-destruction. Alienating themselves and their members from their communities is a recipe for disaster. There's something counter intuitive about the modern day public sector strike: The community suffers, anti-union politicians become more powerful and union strength diminishes.

Union leaders and their sympathizers continue to cling to a romanticized notions about the strike and to defend the sanctity of deals done at the bargaining table. They don't seem to realize that their power at the bargaining table is no greater than that of their private sector counterparts if an employer decides to play hardball, they're left with no option but to flrt with self-destruction. It's hard to put any faith in this kind of mindset and it's even more difficult to believe that in this day and age we continue to cling to methods of advancing our interests that are so baldly ineffective. If unions and their members want to achieve any measure of lasting security and to keep their decent wages and benefits, they are going to have to reach out to their communities in more than symbolic or superficial ways. At minimum they must stop setting themselves up as enemies of the people.

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