Monday, September 3, 2012

Labour Day: who is exploiting whom?

Sign in Toronto Labour Day Parade 2012....
Labour day was never my favourite holiday. Since schools, of one sort or another, were always part of my life, first as a student, then as a teacher, well, I'm sure you get it.

Labour Day is primarily a labour union holiday commemorating significant events in the labour history of both Canada and the USA. The big difference in the holiday between the two countries is that a "u" is found in the Canadian holiday name. And there are more than twice as many unionized employees (as a percentage of workers) in Canada versus the USA.

Once upon a time there was good reason for labour unions. In the past workers in North America felt exploited by their employers and needed a remedy that provided them with leverage to rectify their grievances. The right to associate peacefully is fundamental to the freedoms in both countries, and unions played a major role in improving the safety, wages and benefits of their members.

However, in most of the States and Provinces the "remedy" aspect of union function has been usurped by government regulation and adjudication. In Ontario, for example, the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) says this: "The OLRB's mandate is to provide, as an independent tribunal, excellence in administrative justice through the effective resolution of labour and employment disputes."

So whats left for the unions? Well, wages and benefits primarily, and that's part of the problem.

Trade across the planet is now less constrained and more widespread than ever. Competition has forced large corporations to seek out the cheapest labour world wide while maintaining quality. As a result private sector manufacturing done by unions is shrinking rapidly in places like Canada and the USA. Their past union agreements cannot compete with present day offshore workers, so they have priced themselves out of the market. They may yet recover, but they will need to face the new reality, increase their productivity or do something else.  

Over the same time span as labour unionists became more powerful, governments in Canada and the USA grew by usurping more and more responsibilities from their citizens. The growth of government translated to increases in the number of government employees and the unionists formed huge, powerful, public sector unions. In most cases in Canada the public sector unions are closed shops, meaning, in order to be employed workers must join the union and pay dues. That aspect has been rapidly changing in the USA with the advance of "right-to-work" legislation in various States. But not in Canada, at least not yet.

In the past and especially in recent years, the government of Ontario has pandered to the public sector unions. That shortsightedness backfired and created the massive deficits and debt today, and worse still, there are unfundable liabilities in the future, to meet those previous obligations.

Recently Ontario teachers unions were told by the government that their salaries and benefits will be frozen through emergency legislation to help control the deficit (never mind the debt). Some of the smaller teacher unions actually acceded, but the major unions did not. Strangely, not that long ago, these same unions were supporters of the government, now they have turned, and are vehemently apposed the government's action.

Given the current state of affairs in Ontario, something must change or the Provincial financial situation will get far worse. Recently, their have been downgrades in Ontario's debt by two ratings agencies. The sad truth is that politicians can NEVER be truly held accountable for errors in judgment made 10, 20 or 30 years ago; errors that we must all now live with cannot be adequately punished, memories are too short.

Public sector workers have a high degree of job security, a well supplied union war-chest for media ads and potential strikes, a monopoly agreement with the government eliminating non-union replacement workers, excellent benefits like defined benefit pension plans, ample sick leave, medical and dental insurance, and on-and-on. Should they also have the right to be in unions that can hold an entire province hostage if they choose to strike? I don't think so. I think the public sector unions are adequately protected by agencies like the OLRB, and that they should NOT be free to strike, nor should they have the right to prevent non-union staff from competing for their jobs.

While exploitation of workers has happened in the past, the shoe is now on the other foot. We, the citizens of Ontario are being exploited by the public sector unions, and it has to stop.

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