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April 30, 2003

In Support of Organized Labour

Gary Bannerman

There's an old journalistic joke about the crusading reporter who has just dispatched his latest expose of underworld crime and corporate fraud, naming names, and castigating offenders.

A nervous editor looks him in the eye and asks, "aren't you afraid of organized crime? Don't you think they'll want to get even?"

The reporter replies that organized crime doesn't worry him a bit, and adds, "the only thing that terrifies me is disorganized crime."

The Canadian Labour Congress, the AFL-CIO in the United States, Teamsters International and major labour organizations world-wide proudly proclaim not just what they have done for their membership, but what their collective political power has done to achieve social programs, human rights and civilized, dependable, quality processes for attaining economic goals and uplifting society in the process.

Business oligarchies and the economic think tanks they finance invariably mount arguments that would make both Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes cringe in embarrassment. Smith argued for free market processes, but his name is used to justify powerful, often corrupt, suffocating corporate monopolies, the epitome of what he opposed. Keynes urged governments to incur debt during economic downturns in order to prevent disastrous consequences to individuals and businesses at the community level, but for those governments to repay those debts during prosperous periods. Keynes never imagined that he would be used as an excuse for politicians to sink whole societies into vast depths of debt, even during prosperous periods, for the sole purpose of buying their own personal election. And, worse than that, to be blamed for the inflation and hardship ultimately generated by that debt.

My friend and colleague Richard Pitt wrote the editorial that follows during a public sector labour crises within the society in which we both live. And we know personally some of the key players.

A few of our labour leaders were bandying about the phrase "general strike," the prospect that every member of every union would go off the job on the same day, along with everyone who sympathizes with them. The large Hospital Employees Union (most personnel other than management, medical doctors and registered nurses) was conducting what started out to be a legal strike, but, because government makes the laws, was soon rendered illegal by an emergency session of the Legislature. Then the courts enforced the will of the Legislature.

Presto! Illegal behaviour.

This is not my favourite union. I find it very hard to imagine why a $25 an hour janitor creates a healthier patient than a $20 an hour janitor. But this is what we are asked to assume.

But that's not the issue. The issue is whether we have a systematic, organized work force, or a hit and miss system that can quickly devolve into chaos and privilege for the few at the expense of the many.

What truly amused me amid this recent debacle was how few people understood what "general strike" really means. Some in government seemed inclined (at least in public) to dare the unions to try it. What buffoons! Thankfully, the wiser minds of our labour movement understood that they had the strength to deliver enough of that terrible weapon to achieve devastating consequences. Not only could labour paralyze the economy and bring the system to a halt, teachers would be clubbing teachers, criminals would have a field day, chaos would exist on the streets, trucks would bulldoze over picket lines and people needing an ambulance or medical care would die. Etcetera, etcetera. Not for long. But for long enough.

And then these labour leaders would be discarded by their members and society itself. And any politician who had any role at all in such a calamity, particularly those whose obstinacy challenged labour to use its ultimate weapon, would be sent packing under an aura of ignominy to see whatever "real job" they could salvage.

The free market has tempered the power of the historic "Industrial and Trades Unions." The cyber world has disintegrated employment centres into millions of smaller firms, while globalism has absorbed the larger activities into conglomerates so massive it numbs the mind.

There is a real issue today that only the labour movement can address. Public sector unions and professional associations dominate. Up until the 1960s, civil servants and professionals such as teachers and nurses were very badly paid, compared to equivalent responsibilities in the private sector, but they were rewarded with job security and the best benefits anywhere. Today, they have far superior salaries (on average), much less security and benefits no better than equal to the largest private sector employers.

But they are vast in numbers and their collective dues finance enormous war chests. The question it raises is "who is serving whom?" Is this public service or self-service? Is there not an ethical duty of every public servant to work toward systems that will best benefit the broader society?

That's not what public sector unions do. Not only do they prevent weak-kneed governments from implementing efficiencies, they use their power, wealth and organizational security to corrupt the principles and influence of the broader labour movement.

I believe - determinedly - in organized labour and everything it stands for. The alternative is societies such as one sees in the third world in which the wealthy have an extravagant lifestyle, but it exists only in microcosm behind barbed wire, protected by armed guards and barking dogs, because their greed has destroyed the society around them.

The world would be far better served if governments and their unions were separated by law from the private economy. That means a government corporation cannot masquerade as a real business, with all of the inherent risks, challenges, rewards and penalties. Nor should self-respecting trade unionists feel any kind of partnership with government employees.

This is not to suggest that government employees should not have the right to unionize or even to strike, but a completely different Labour Code should be crafted. This would define essential services and rules for negotiation and arbitration. Every individual within this realm: elected, managerial and staff, should first be pledged to a culture of public service, defined by law, and then live by it. Only by demonstrating a breach of trust of some nature, should a withdrawal of services be permitted. Comparative formulas could be designed among other jurisdictions within Canada and beyond and this could become the measurement of value and fair play.

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