The public response to recent labour disputes has been a disturbing sideshow to the return of Parliament. What's remarkable is the level of nastiness that gets tossed around, littered with references to "union stooges" and the ubiquitous "socialist dinosaurs."
Perhaps the most obvious line of attack is based on a backdrop of selfishness -- "I don't have benefits/vacation/job security, so why should they?"
It is an argument borne of misplaced resentment. The understandable anger at an increasingly stratified society is being directed not at the handful of people who are benefiting handsomely from an increasingly unfair and unequal economy, but rather at those individuals and organizations trying to make that same economic system a little less unfair for themselves and eventually for others.
As a strategy, though, it's completely backwards: rather than resenting unionized workers for what they have achieved, doesn't it make more sense to say, "What great benefits -- I would like to have them too" (or maybe, "I would like my kids to have those opportunities, even if I don't")? Isn't that how we improve living and working conditions for all of us?
I don't understand the apparently pervasive rationale that unless everyone (or at least the person doing the complaining) has these rights, no one should. How does that guarantee any kind of social progress? Do we reject social improvements out of sympathy for those who didn't benefit from them? Or do we initiate social progress by creating examples of good policy and practice to which we all collectively work to aspire? Like, for example, paid maternity leave -- which many of us now have as a direct result of the postal workers' fight for that benefit in the 80s.
If the founders of Medicare thought that establishing public health care would be unfair to those who grew up without it, where would we be today?
But there's also another theme that's been percolating on message boards (following news stories about what has become a full-fledged lockout of postal workers by Canada Post, and the recent tabling of back-to-work legislation by the federal government) -- one deeply rooted in elitism and adherence to a rigid class system.
"What makes them think they deserve more?"
"You only need a grade 6 education to do their job."
"Why should unskilled labour get paid $50,000 a year?"
Funny, isn't it, how people claim to respect those who do "an honest day's work." Yet when that "honest day's work" comes with decent wages, benefits, vacation days, a pension and job security -- you know, if it's unionized -- suddenly those same hardworking folks are "coddled," their work somehow not so "honest" anymore.
Workers are universally loved (or at least they get some rhetorical "props") when they're downtrodden... but the moment they have the gall to look beyond their "place," they're met with a wave of righteous indignation: who do they think they are, anyway?
"They think they work harder than you and me," someone responded on facebook when I voiced my support for postal workers. "Well, maybe they do," I said. I'm certainly not out there every day carrying upwards of 35 lbs of mail for hours at a time, trudging through Ottawa streets in minus-40 winters and plus-40 summers, and dealing with the realities of a job that has the second-highest rate of work-related injuries in the federal sector.
The implication is that some jobs (and the people who do them) just aren't deserving of a good wage, security, or safe working conditions. Times are tight (for working people, though not for CEOs), they have a job, and that should be enough for them. Living wages are for slackers, and unions have to get with the times.
Really? So this is the new definition of progress: household debt is at record levels and working people (particularly the younger ones who are just entering the job market) are told they have to do more and expect less while paying off student loans, raising families, and caring for aging parents.
Ironically, in resisting this so-called "new reality" for their current and future members (and more broadly, for society) unions are painted as obstructionist and out of touch. But it's our increasingly stratified system -- the one so many people, against even their own best interests, tie themselves into knots defending -- that's truly untenable.
Erika Shaker is Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' Education Project.