Of the many clichés to arise during this economic crisis—“golden parachutes,” “too big to fail,” and, worst of all, “recessionista”—one stands out. We are told that unions must automatically stand down during any given dispute, because their members should be grateful to be employed at all. This attitude became part of the North American zeitgeist during the height of the car industry’s woes last year; as a municipal strike in Toronto drags on, it has now gripped Canada’s largest city.
Those who do work most of us would rather avoid deserve to be paid well, recession or no. I have worked truly godawful jobs, in manual labour and service, and in those minimum-wage days there was nothing I wanted more than a union in my corner. It seems obvious that garbage collection—a flashpoint in the current Toronto strike—is one of those unpleasant but necessary tasks for which employees should be generously rewarded. (Whether the demands of Toronto’s workers are fair is a matter of perspective, but since municipal politicians recently gave themselves a 2.42 percent pay increase, City Hall cannot claim the high ground.)
There’s an unsympathetic adage that those who dislike their jobs enough to strike should quit instead. That is baldly short-sighted; societies need garbage collectors, and maybe instead of griping when they ask for pay raises and job security, we should thank them for dealing with our putrid waste every week. If nothing else, the Toronto strike should make residents grateful that, eventually, they will no longer have to personally haul their trash around.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that unions make modest compromises with employers in order to weather the recession and avoid strikes. Many unions have recently done just that, and have gone even further, by collectively shortening workweeks to keep all members employed. But the current wave of anti-union rhetoric goes much farther than simple pleas for cooperation. Unions are called unnecessary anachronisms, as if workers no longer deserve representation and employers are all enlightened, benevolent philanthropists. Some cry for garbage collection, a basic public service, to be privatized. Perhaps the greatest falsehood perpetuated in this downturn is that unions are responsible for the death of the North American car industry, even though the infamous $73-an-hour-autoworker is a total myth, and labour is only around 10 percent of the cost of building a car.
Unions did not assemble the impenetrable fictions of asset-backed securities, or prey on the poor with absurd loans. Unions did not design or market Detroit’s useless, inefficient beasts. Our captains of industry did, and were rewarded for their incompetence with government largesse and handsome severance packages. They must be relieved that what is termed “populist rage”—really, just rational anger at greed and selfishness—is now, inexplicably, directed at people who handle garbage for a living.
If anything, unions are needed now more than ever. In the latest issue of Harper’s, Ken Silverstein notes that the rise of America’s middle class occurred, not coincidentally, in tandem with the ascent of the union movement—something that country’s president knows. Any economist will tell you that, while layoffs and pay cuts may help companies stay afloat in the short term, such moves will ultimately prolong the recession. Aren’t we all supposed to go out and spend money to stimulate the economy? Wouldn’t we be more likely to do so if employers kept paying decent wages?
This is a great time to talk about the many problems with unions: they are indeed bloated, top-heavy, out-of-touch, inflexible, bureaucratic; some labour leaders make much, much more than the rank and file (though still much less than their bargaining-table nemeses); like all representative organizations, they can be unreasonable and blindly self-interested. But this recession should not be used to lower our standards of a fair day's pay; it cannot undo decades of hard-earned gains for those who build our cars and take out our trash.