Do We Still Need Unions?!

Those of us who grew up during the Cold War experienced more than our fair share of capitalist propaganda. Communists were the enemy, and capitalism—more than democracy—was positioned as its antithesis. Reaganomics and Thatcherism promoted the idea that the only thing better than Capitalism was capitalism unfettered by unions and government regulations. With the advent of offshoring, this was done one better by dispensing with niceties like human rights, by moving jobs to countries where democracy didn’t spoil the fun!

As a child of the 80’s I bought into this propaganda, and didn’t notice the prejudice that I, and those around me, had developed against unions, and the people who belonged to them. When I entered the working world, it was common to hear people say proudly that they did not—and would never—belong to a union. The word ‘union’ had transformed from noun to derisive adjective.

First-in-last-out, pay based on tenure, constant labour strife shutting down productive capacity, and strikes timed with good weather, all seemed to undermine the idea that unions still had a place in a Darwinian capitalist system. The best that supporters of the labour movement could do was point out that they were to thank for the 40-hour work week, and weekends.

Sure, but what have you done for me lately?! 
It turns out, not much.
So why don’t we just get rid of them? We can, as long as we can answer ‘no’ to all of the following questions:

Do jobs exist where people trade their productive capacity for money? Does worker safety come at some cost? 
Is anything other than profit a desired outcome?

For people who have knowledge-based jobs, they are inevitably paid to continue learning. Every job becomes an opportunity to add to the résumé, and increase their value to the market. But there are still many jobs—and notably, jobs that can’t be offshored—where there is a straight trade of money for time, with the worker becoming less valuable with each passing day. Does a delivery person become more or less valuable as the years advance? How about someone working in a mine? Chances are, their market value is dropping as they work, which exposes them to being exchanged for younger, perhaps more energetic, and lower paid replacements. Also, when unemployment rates rise, these types of jobs are prone to salary erosion dictated by market forces; if there is always someone willing to do it cheaper, it’s a race to the bottom.

The profit motive is the basis of capitalism. Profit and the interests of the worker are often at odds, as is usually the case when it comes to worker safety. We’re not sending foreign workers into railway tunnels with unstable explosives anymore (I think), but there continues to be lots of skilled and unskilled work in environments where cutting corners to save a buck will cost lives, or the quality of them. Without a mechanism to counteract the profit motive, it will win out over safety every time.

For some jobs, it is pretty easy to calculate a worker’s value. How many quality widgets did he produce? How much did she sell? How many billable hours did they contribute? Many others are more qualitative than quantitative. Has a balance been stuck between patient health, and the cost of health care? Are students being adequately prepared for the world? Are the interests of the public being prioritized over political expediency? In these cases, it is a great advantage for a worker to have protection, when pressures such as cost, profit, and perception could lead to bad outcomes.

Until someone comes up with something better, unions still have a role to play when workers trade their value for money, worker safety comes at a cost, and we desire more than just profit.

I See Four Lights!!

Fans of Star Trek TNG will undoubtedly remember the episode where an alien captures the captain (Cpt. Picard played by Patrick Stewart) and attempts to break him by torture. The simple test used to determine if Picard’s will has been broken, is to ask him if he sees 5 lights when there are actually 4.

Even against increasing physical pain and mental torture he maintains, “There are FOUR lights!!”. To this day this is one of the only episodes I remember, because Stewart’s incredible acting, and because of his comment to his rescuers at the end (paraphrasing): “Just for a moment, I could see five lights”.  This indicated to me that even the best amoung us can be convinced of something false, given enough mis-information under duress.

Politics today has way too many layers. I think politicians are trying to convince us there are 5 lights on one side, and sometimes 3 by the other side. If one side uses rhetoric, the other side must reply with the same, like two sides trying to barter to a final price. Trouble is, what comes out from both sides is only so much crap, and sometimes people actually are listening.

I choose to see 4 lights regardless of what crap they throw my way.

Transit Strike: A Silver Lining

I saw Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien in the Starbucks today, and I almost went up to him to say ‘Hi Larry, I know you are probably taking a lot of flack for the length of the transit strike, but I for one am quite happy about it!’.

I decided not to, for the same reason that I leave other celebrities I see alone:  I am sure they get quite enough of people coming up to talk to then when they are trying to enjoy some down time.

Before I get into my rationale for this statement about the transit strike, and draw the ire of those significantly inconvenienced by it (who I feel for), I want to state that I am pro-public transit, as long as it isn’t me that is using it!  😉

Some reasons why I am enjoying the transit strike:

  • Route 151, which runs right past my house every half hour, no longer ruins the peace and quiet with the loud roar of the bus engine (why do they have to be so damn loud??)
  • Lanes previously reserved for buses only, are now opened up to all traffic, allowing much greater flow of car traffic during off-peak hours
  • I haven’t noticed any change to my morning commute in terms of more traffic, or longer transit time
  • In a time when city budgets are getting strained, and tax hikes are imminent, it seems that one way to save money is not to run buses!
  • The taxi drivers, who until recently were under duress due to high gas prices, now have gas prices halved and more business than they can handle!  They should be happy with this as well!

Anyway, that is my take on the silver lining of this… may the flames commence…

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