When the state of Wisconsin’s Republican-dominated assembly voted to strip the rights of public sector unions earlier this year it laid bare the link between the corporate agenda and the right wing political intent. Few realized how the state had fallen. In 1959, Wisconsin had been one of the first to grant unionization rights to public employees, soon followed by John Kennedy’s 1962 Executive Order providing unionizing rights to federal workers. Soon thereafter the middle-class expanded significantly. By 1970, 22 states had enacted collective bargaining rights. Private sector unions, fighting for similar legislation, found themselves deeply opposed by a rising conservative movement, and by the end of the decade private sector unions were in freefall.
That Conservative behemoth, dominant now in the U.S., has set its fortunes on similar attacks in Canada. This country never went through the deep and divisive fissures around unionization that faced our neighbours to the south, but with the bold-faced attack on Caterpillar workers in London, Ontario it now seems likely that the debilitating divisions experienced in America are to be part of the Canadian experience, as both corporate and right-wing politics hollow out what was once a more productive Canadian social and economic arrangement. We would be foolish as Canadians to ignore a corporate/political intrusion into our country that will eventually pit citizens again one another. Such an incursion is only strengthened by the reality that the smaller, independent media sources that used to be sympathetic to the struggles of average workers, especially locally, have been gobbled up by massive media corporations that are increasingly siding with the self-absorbed corporate agenda.
What is perhaps more troubling to me has been the distance average progressive Canadians have put between themselves and the concept of unionization. The only reason the London public has turned in such large numbers against Caterpillar is that the corporation has so drastically ordered a 50% pay cut as an opening offer. It was offensive enough that most are siding with the workers. One wonders if the reaction would have been the same if the company opened with an offer of a 10% cut to be applied annually over the next five years. It’s likely that the opening offer would have caused barely a ripple and Londoners would have just gone on with their daily lives.
The majority of conversations I’ve had over the past week have been about this deplorable situation that now seems to have captured national attention. In most cases people are very careful to qualify their support for the workers while remaining skeptical of unions. Perhaps it’s time we put such artificial divisions aside, for they only play into the hands of the political and corporate agenda.
It might be more logical to ask a simple question: where would Canadian workers go for protection? This is a fundamental query each and every one of us should be asking in light of the London situation. Seeking assistance from the corporate barons is an obvious no-go. Governments? Just consider how the PMO and, by extension, the compliant voices of its MPs have sought to not only wash their hands of the affair but refuse to even dialogue with the workers on the line.
Is this the kind of employment future you want to consider – no protections, hardball, political ambivalence? Is the idea not to reduce Canadian workers to the state of serfs but to actually recruit them as partners in the grand enterprise of producing the best products and the highest quality of human services? Are we to demonize public sector unions at the expense of decent wages for us all? Companies have rights. Citizens supposedly have rights and responsibilities. Are we now willing to stand by and witness the removal of decent wages for good work from this country at a time when corporate profits are mushrooming? Is this the best we can do, play the game?
Of course unions have, at times, overplayed their hand. But so have government, educational and health institutions, and capitalism itself. Are we suggesting doing away with them? No, the idea is reform not abandonment. Would we toss out a health delivery system in the middle of a pandemic or forego universities at a time when knowledge is essential? Then why continue to place artificial divisions between workers and their rights to protect themselves by forming unions?
Unions are not the enemy, anymore than professors, doctors, nurses or politicians. Our real foe is the 1% that continues to expand it holdings while reducing everyone else’s at the same time.
We’ve seen enough financial reports chronicling increased sales in yachts the size of small ocean liners, luxury automobiles, and home palaces to comprehend that the financial order is rigged against us. Even the hopeful Arab Spring continues to be undermined by an Arab elite that insists on its billions while its people linger in chronic poverty. In lands where workers are prohibited to unionize and governments refuse to intervene, workers hopes seem doomed.
The Electro Motive workers in London are at the frontline of a concerted effort to transform the modern worker from a co-entrepreneur to service status. If not for their union they would have no protection at all. Abandoned by the political and corporate elite, it would prove devastating for them to have the shrinking middle-class turn against the very unions that have protected their rights – and ours. If we don’t know who the real opponent is after all we have learned in this last year, then we might have lost already.