“Negotiate, don’t legislate” has been the steady chant on CUPW picket lines, where they have been joined by public and private sector trade unions in solidarity over the lockout by Canada Post. But why?
For all Canada Post’s claims that it’s not making enough money, and postal workers need to tighten their belts (postal workers in Toronto, btw, make exactly the median wage in the city — if greedy unions are what’s keeping some small parts of the working class out of the poverty of the minimum wage, I’ll take ’em, thanks), a lot of people have been seriously inconvenienced by having limited, and then no, postal service, businesses big and small are losing money, and everyone seems to agree that a universal postal service is essential to the Canadian economy. So of course we all want the postal workers working, and why not just legislate them back, force an end to the labour dispute, and carry on as normal?
Because the Canadian economy is not carrying on as normal — at least not for workers. And every single one of us has a stake in that.
As Judy Haiven and Larry Haiven from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report, in BC and Newfoundland workers have been forced to end strikes, and to accept deals that included a wage freeze for one group and a 15% wage rollback, longer work week, and agreement to out-source public-sector jobs to private contractors for the other:
Both governments threatened massive punishments for those who defied the edicts, including dismissals and huge fines for the unions and their members.
The governments have sent a powerful message to trade unions, one which will have ominous future repercussions: You can negotiate all you want, but when push comes to shove, unless you agree to what employers want, we will bring the full force of the state against you and impose what employers want. […]
What makes recent cases so different and so dangerous is that governments are bypassing the arbitration route and writing the terms of settlement into the legislation. When it happens again and again, collective Canadian governments are, for all intents and purposes, rendering collective bargaining dead.
Back-to-work legislation has been used in the past, and will, eventually, be used against Canadian postal workers, but its unquestioned use, and the attitude among Canadians that workers should be legislated back to work immediately, whatever their situation, is a worrying one. As Haiven and Haiven point out,collective bargaining was institutionalized to stabilize the process of negotiating labour disputes. When joining a union and striking was illegal and answered when violent force, when workers were told management could make unilateral decisions about their working conditions and there was nothing they could do about it—workers joined unions and went on strike anyway. Personally, I like the idea of illegal strikes. I like the idea of a general illegal strike. Actually, I’d really like to have a revolution. But political will isn’t there (yet) in Canada, and collective bargaining — the often-fraught process of coming to a compromise between workers and employers over employment and labour conditions — is designed to keep our jobs and businesses stable until we get there (or forever, I guess, if you don’t want to have a revolution).
Undermining the collective bargaining process is designed to destabilize the carryings-on Canadians have considered normal for the last couple of generations.
Welcome to the “new reality”
Did you know we have a new reality? It’s one where your job is on contract and temporary, where you work ‘for yourself’ without owning a business or seeing any profit, where your wage (if it’s guaranteed) is at or near minimum and just barely approaches the poverty line, where you don’t know what hours (if any) you’ll work next week or if you’ll have a job next March, you can’t have benefits because you’re not a permanent employee (but you can buy private insurance, right?), and there’s no such thing as seniority or promotions. This is precarious work.
Precarious work reduces workers — entire human beings with families, communities, needs, and futures to worry about — to the essential traits that make them assets to corporations: low cost, short-term and long-term “flexibility,” and the hardcore willingness to do the job and do it well that can only come with desperation. Culturally, many of us are led to support this, thinking of ourselves as branded individuals, who will succeed if we sell ourselves hard enough, and who can benefit from flexibility, if we’re lucky and resourceful (and aren’t we, though?). In practical and cultural terms, business has worked very hard to keep us from thinking of ourselves as a working class.
And that keeps us from realizing that we have a stake in the postal workers’ struggle, beyond whether or not the thingum we just bought on eBay gets delivered, and in migrant workers’, restaurant workers’, sex workers’, domestic workers’, cab drivers’, retail workers’, even academic workers’ struggles. Because while some of us can find some ways to benefit from flexibility, most of the working class just suffers as the bar for decent work is set lower, and lower, and lower, and the government and corporations undermine what few institutionalized processes we have to get together and do something about it.
Trade unions in Canada right now, who are demonized in the media for exactly these class-oriented politics of raising the standard for decent work (you may have heard it as: “being lazy, greedy mo’fuckers who don’t understand that corporations need to make money and go on strike every five minutes because they want the whole year off on vacation”), are fighting their own battles for their own workers as well as a struggle against systemic neoliberalization for the entire working class.
Unions constantly advocate for non union workers, lobbying for improvements in EI so that everyone is treated equally, such as part time seasonal and contract workers. They also led the charge for the fair treatment of workers forced to use temp agencies none of whom are likely to be unionized.
Unions are at the forefront of the battle to protect our pensions and most importantly our precious health care system. Do you honestly think that the corporations and the neoliberals who govern us are going to step up and fight to protect these important institutions. Of course not, in fact they wish to see their destruction,hence the demonetization of Unions, one of the few organizations capable of standing in their way.
There is perhaps one other area where we will need the Unions and it is a very important one. As our governments continue to sell out our interests to the corporations, ratchet up the security state and institute their austerity agenda (that is austerity for me and you, not them), there will come a time when we will have no choice but to fight back. This is when we will require their experience and ability to organize.
CUPW has been very clear about what’s at stake for them as workers: sick days, pensions, benefits, and a wage reduction that would affect new and younger workers, making the “new reality” the standard for my generation (while we pay out our parents’ pensions). But they’ve also been clear about their support for CAW at Air Canada, and their solidarity with Toronto public employees, OPSEU workers in Toronto, and Toronto teachers, whose contracts are coming up soon, as well as with the majority of the working class who struggle in deplorable working conditions, for poverty wages, and with no hope for change under the new reality. Fighting against CUPW, or any union these days, is fighting against workers in general.
Why on earth would it be in any of our best interests (unless we own huge corporations, I guess. Or really, really want to) to support our government in undermining postal workers’ bargaining power and decent work conditions? Yeah, they get a lot more than some of us do… but shouldn’t we get that, too? We are, after all, the resourceful, flexible, willing, and hardworking people of the neoliberal reality — who says we haven’t earned it?
But I really, really, really want my thingum from eBay!
After the revolution, I’m stealing your house.
This is a reproduction of a post from June 23rd 2011 on my blog at https://landing.athabascau.ca/profile/sarahma108