Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Wasted on the Wrong People

Remember that old saying: “Strike while the iron’s hot”? Well, I've got an updated version: "Strike while the weather's hot". That's what one thousand of Ontario's professional hydro employees are doing these days. It's ninety degrees in the shade. Not a very comfortable time to be walking the picket line.

Where I come from, Cape Breton Island, unions have historically played an integral and significant part in many people’s lives. More so, perhaps, than here in Toronto. So, I feel that I am suited to provide a unique perspective on this situation.

Twenty years ago I moved to Toronto from Cape Breton in search of employment. When I arrived I was a staunch union supporter. How could I not have been? Back in my grandfather's day many Cape Bretoners were subject to horrific working conditions and massive exploitation by unscrupulous and heartless corporate coal mine operators. Workers were paid pennies for crawling on their hands and knees all day, a mile underground, breathing toxic dust, while digging coal by hand. They were paid by the pound and quite often cheated by the company they worked for. They were virtual slaves and had no recourse but to unionize. They fought some hard battles for their rights. My grandfather told me stories of freezing, starving miners marching on the mining office in the dead of winter and being beat bloody by club-wielding company mercenaries on horseback.

I don’t think I’m much different than most Cape Bretoners, or other Canadians for that matter. I am proud of my forefathers’ sacrifices. I fully support the right of workers to organize and am very aware of the significant role unions have played in giving us all a higher standard of living and safer working conditions. But, I cannot help but feel a little disillusioned with some of our unions today.

I have noticed that some union members these days are very highly paid. Professional athletes, for example. Their so called ‘unions’ have to be the most puzzling and blatantly ridiculous misuse of unionism that I have ever witnessed. Is it not a travesty that these millionaires are allowed to form a union? And then we have our doctors. They pay dues and reap the benefits of membership in their ‘associations’, which are, in actuality, unions. They defend their incompetent members, control who is licensed and influence what wages are paid to their members.

Surely, the inclusion of these well paid professionals under the union banner has done nothing to give unionism credibility in our society. Is it any wonder that many regular working Canadians have little sympathy for unions these days?

And what about the striking hydro professionals. As I understand it, they are all engineers and managers. Their average annual salary is $80,000 a year. Many make over $100,000 a year. Imagine, in our society, we have privileged, educated, highly paid hydro professionals demanding the protection of a working person’s union and willing to hold the public to ransom to get what they want.

If my coal mining forefathers were alive today to see what unionism has become, they would probably just shake their heads. They would not understand. Personally, I don’t understand either. Unions are supposed to protect the common workers – the workers who need protection. They were never intended to be a security blanket for affluent sports stars, well-heeled academics and university educated professionals. Surely these people should be able to take care of themselves.

Clearly, we have a problem in our society. Highly paid professional people who should, by any reasonable historical standard, have no right to union protection are often the most vocal and adversarial defenders of their own privileged unionized positions. As a result, the word ‘union’ no longer resonates positively among the public as it did in the past. And the demands of union members no longer have the public support they once did. This is likely because many of us no longer see unions as organizations that seek equality with the rest of us. Rather we see them as organizations that would not hesitate to punish us to preserve their position as our superiors.

Unions can still serve a valuable purpose in our society. It's a shame that they are sometimes wasted on the wrong people.


Blogger Linda said...

My roots (on my Dad's side) are also in Cape Breton, so I hear ya. I certainly think that unions have moved away from their original purpose, and are a cause of grave moral concern to people of faith, as their union dues go to support causes contrary to their faith. Here's a long, but interesting article, on the unravelling of the relationship between unions and churches: http://tinyurl.com/a6c53

10:32 PM  
Blogger RightGirl said...

Ronald, if you have picketers outside your front door, you and I might be in the same office building. We should do lunch!


12:23 PM  

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