Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Mayday for May Day?

Hug a union member. May 1st is International Workers' Day, commonly known as May Day, so it’s a fine time to do so, if not to show solidarity, at least to show appreciation. It may no longer be fashionable to admit it, but organized labour has contributed greatly to the quality of life in Canada and many other countries. Furthermore, given the way the government has been treating the labour movement, I’m sure a hug would likely be welcome.
I am baffled by the antipathy shown toward unions by regular working people. It makes sense that business owners and management would be against organized labour; unions give power and money to workers. What I don’t understand is how rank-and-file workers side with management against those who would want to improve the lot of workers. From the 40-hour week to minimum wages, to pensions and benefits, organized labour has been at the forefront in pursuing those goals. Workplace safety, training standards, child-labour laws, and workplace equality are further causes where the influence has been brought to bear. Today we all enjoy many of the benefits that were won by the union movement, often with their blood. In fact, the accomplishments of organized labour are often acknowledged by critics in comments such as this:

Unions and striking were needed before there were governments standards controlling work hours, pay and most importantly, safety. Now unions are about taking advantage of the power of collective bargaining and fighting management, employees that strike these days are not hard done by, they ALL are earning wages above the average income. Posties, Air Canada, OC Transpo, teachers, etc..

Get back to work and be happy you have jobs that pay well, are safe and have benefits at all. If you don't like it, try being your own boss.
In the first breath, there is the acknowledgement of what unions have done, then the idea that there is no further need because everything has been done and it’s over. This poster, Barry, is making a big leap, assuming that we can count on governments to look after us now. Governments were often in strong, sometimes violent opposition to organized labour. Recent anti-union intervention in labour disputes characterize Harper’s Conservative government, including siding with management at Canada Post in ordering workers to return to their duties after the corporation’s management locked out the workers! Harper’s government also gave Air Canada a hand on several ocassions, going so far as to say that if there were to be a strike, it would force workers back. Governments from all parties, both provincial and federal, have had run-ins with labour. It seems naïve to think that government should be left to safeguard the rights of workers on its own.
What the Barrys of the world forget is entropy. Everything is disintegrating and falling apart. It is only through continued effort that what we value in society is maintained. We see this in vicious labour disputes where management does not want a fair settlement, but rather to destroy the union or, worse, destroy the company, gutting it and sucking the marrow from the bones, leaving nothing for those whose sweat built it. Just as no man is an island, no company exists outside of society. We must hold them to account, just as we hold individuals to account. Whatever its flaws, the labour movement has done, and continues to do, that.

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