All right. Fine. I’ve been avoiding this for weeks, but this morning was the final straw. So you win: you get your way, loyal readers who’ve been pestering me about this. I’ll talk about the stupid fucking garbage strike.
If you live in Toronto (which a lot of you do) and you don’t meander through your life wearing earmuffs, blinders and especially nose plugs, you’re aware the thirty-thousand good men and women of CUPE are currently on strike as a result of a labour dispute with the city.
For my non-Canadian readers, we here in the True North Strong and Free take our right to strike pretty seriously. Labour stoppages are relatively common country-wide, especially where unions are concerned. In my life I’ve seen strikes in the educational community (both secondary school and university), city workers (this is the second one I’ve lived through in Toronto), and, perhaps most disturbingly, liquor store employees (that one scared the shit out of me). And, like everything in life, there are at least two sides to any such conflict. I’ve been a little more…exuberant than I’ve needed to be in the past when expressing my views on social issues, so I’m going to try really, really hard to be as egalitarian as possible in this post, because it’s a hot-button issue that’s got a lot of people pretty pissed off here in my home town.
That said, I’m going to lay this on you first, before I get into the meat and potatoes of this post. I’m going on record right now saying that I’m not a fan of unionization as a general rule. A hundred years ago, unions weren’t just a good idea, they were necessary to protect the safety of workers subjected to unbelievably inhuman conditions. Men and women forced to work in life-threatening situations for very little pay and nothing in the way of what, in the modern era, we’d come to expect as “benefits” – these folks had a really good case for unionizing. If the level of safety in my workplace revolved around whether or not the caged canary was alive or dead, I’d have a few choice things to say to my employer too, and no doubt about it.
Nowadays, unions are still a good idea in some fields. I shudder when I remember my days working in retail and food services: health benefits and sick days were laughable concepts; I was required to pull all kinds of extra hours for no pay to satisfy the demands of the corporate assholes running the show; “breaks” were arbitrarily revoked in the name of meeting customer demands – the list goes on. And I wasn’t even working for the worst of the companies. I can’t imagine trying to work for a huge corporate machine like Wal-Mart without the benefit of an organization looking out for my rights as a worker. That’s what I always understood unions were for – to watch the back of the little guy on the totem pole.
It strikes me that a lot of modern labour disputes go just a little bit farther than looking out for the basic rights of workers. Remember, I’m operating from the perspective of the average Torontonian who has to work every day (providing you lovely people with this cornucopia of genius to which you consistently return) just for the privilege of keeping a roof over my head and food in my stomach. The difference I see in pay rate between a non-union guy like me and a unionized worker who falls under the umbrella of collective agreement or union contract, if you include stuff like benefits, vacation pay, sick days and retirement, is pretty vast. Of course, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but frankly, the idea of private sector employees getting even a fraction of what benefits are provided to CUPE members is laughable at best.
Strike mentality revolves around public support. Many of you living in Ontario probably remember the OSSTF strikes of the Mike Harris era: over the course of just a few years, there were constant labour disputes resulting in strikes lasting several weeks as well as the infamous Work to Rule campaign.
Initially, at least in my town, public support was firmly behind the teacher’s union. People were pissed with the policies of the Harris administration and its frequent budget cuts to social services, so when the teachers stepped up to the plate to challenge his decisions, our community largely rallied around them. But after weathering several years’ worth of haggling and gunboat diplomacy, support started to fade. More and more people started questioning the union’s motivation – especially after the Work to Rule policy took effect, in which all teachers were mandated to work precisely the hours outlined in their contracts and were forbidden to organize or run any extra-curricular activities for students (this included sports, theater and music programs, among others). It started to look less and less like the union was in it, as they had said, for the good of the students, and public opinion started to veer in an anti-union direction.
I’m not commenting one way or the other on a years-old debate, I’m just using this example to illustrate my point: in this day and age, and particularly in this economy, a strike can be a very tenuous move, because a labour dispute is essentially a battle between legislators and unions for public support.
That public support, as far as I’m concerned, rests heavily on two competing factors. First, how much support did you start with – how valid is your case, and how well are you selling it to the public? Second, how much does your strike inconvenience the general populace, in opposition to your case?
During the OSSTF strikes, public support rested firmly in the teacher’s camp initially; therefore, people were willing to overlook the fact their kids were basically running amok all day long while they were at work. The demands of the union made sense – they were polarized with public opposition to the Harris government, and again, people could justify away the necessity for a strike, despite the fact their kids weren’t able to go to class.
As time wore on, the actions of the union became a greater detriment to students – Work to Rule effectively shut down extra-curricular activities completely, and those activities were the major reason a lot of students even came to my school – myself included. Coupled with the length of time the strikes lasted and the seemingly inordinate length of time negotiations dragged on, public support gradually fell away from the union as the jealousy factor set in – parents operating in the private sector became resentful of what they perceived as a group of well-paid, well-reimbursed professionals who, it seemed, were holding their children’s education ransom in order to accomplish their goals.
Now fast-forward to today. Same questions: how valid is your case in relation to public support, and how much does the strike inconvenience us Torontonians?
Well, as far as I’ve been able to understand, the major point of contention is that union employees were granted, in their last contract, the ability to “bank” up to 18 sick days per year and collect on the pay for days not taken when they retire. Now the city has turned around and said they can’t afford to keep that on the books, so they’re trying to take it back. This, after city councilors handed themselves a hefty raise, while still spouting the party line about being out of money. Serious? In turn, the union is pissed. Ergo: strike. I understand this.
But here’s my take. I can see both sides of this argument. On the one hand, if the Fixer promised to do something for me and put it in writing – be it a raise, bonus, benefits, whatever – and then turned around and said, “oh, sorry, I can’t actually afford that, too bad”, especially if he did so right after purchasing himself a yacht or something, I would be about ready to choke the fucker out. If Jeff, Jim and I formed a union, you better believe we’d be striking over that shit.
Having said that, I’m looking at CUPE and their already-considerable pay scale and benefits package from my lowly perspective here on the bottom rung. Compared to me, these folks are damned well taken care of, and the fact they’re willing to go on strike to secure what amounts (in my mind) to icing on their proverbial cake at the height of an economic recession is pretty ballsy. I’ve been talking about this issue with a few of my correspondents here at the Compound, and we’ve come up with a pretty comprehensive list of people who would be well within their rights to be pissed off about this whole situation.
Leaving aside the general public who are bound to be angry that they have to wait in lineups to drop off their garbage in public parks (what a great idea, heaping our beautiful parks with trash…), imagine what it must be like for people who live next to dump sites like Christie Pits. I live considerably north of the mainline of dump sites, and even I can smell the refuse from my quarters – these people are living right across the street. Gross? I think so.
Yes, the garbage issue is probably the most easily-illustrated byproduct of this strike, but let’s not forget that all the city workers are off work. That means daycare workers, lifeguards, and a host of other service providers who are responsible for running publicly-funded activities. It’s the middle of summer. Kids aren’t in school. What are single-income families supposed to do with their children when they have to go to their shitty minimum-wage jobs for hours and hours just to afford rent and Kraft Dinner? The law says you can’t leave the little rugrats alone in the apartment. Babysitters are inordinately expensive nowadays. Without city-funded daycare, these folks are pretty much S.O.L.
Take that one step further. I came across this link to an open letter to Premier Dalton McGuinty from a host of seasonal and part-time CUPE members, most of whom are students on summer break, who really don’t want to be on strike. Like, at all. These are kids trying to save for college – you know, that forty-thousand dollar money scam we’re all indoctrinated to believe will change the course of our future – who can only work during the summer months, and instead of making good money doing honest work, they’re being given a $200 a month “strike pay” cheque to put towards their incredibly expensive futures. They, like many people lined up behind striking workers desperate to take their jobs, actually want to work. The strike has nothing to do with them. If the union wins out, they don’t benefit. And yet, the nature of unions is such that they have no choice but to a) stay home and twiddle their thumbs, b) go work somewhere else for a fraction of the pay (and at this point in the summer, good luck finding that kind of job) or c) hit the picket line. It’s one thing to inconvenience the public – but to railroad your own employees into walking off jobs they desperately need? Sorry; in my mind that’s pretty unfair.
I don’t want to go on and on about this issue, but I felt like I should weigh in with my two cents. The bottom line is this: nobody wins here. Our city looks like shit. People are angry on both sides, and if this continues, you’re going to see major implications as the garbage heats up, working people lose wages, and tempers flare over partisan politics. Frankly, I’m of the mindset right now that in this economy, people bloody well ought to be happy to even have a job, let alone a job with the kind of perks I see from where I’m standing. On the same token, our hired leaders (because they are hired) need to start taking some responsibility and putting their money where their big fat over-privileged mouths are. Ernest Hemingway once said “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk – that’ll teach you to keep your mouth shut.” I think there’s an awful lot of wisdom in that statement.
My city stinks. I’m tired of it. Can we please deal with this shit and get on with our lives?
Post Scriptum – how’s that for mid-line? Try and crucify me for this one. Just try.