Tuesday, July 28, 2009

An Etiquette Lesson for Organized Labour

A while ago I blogged here about recession etiquette, the main point of which was the need for those who had fared well during the economic downturn to be more aware of the feelings of those who have fallen victim to these times. I know that everyone has felt the pinch in some way or another but let's face it, losing your job is infinitely more stressful than realizing that your house has decreased in value, especially if you weren't planning to sell anyway.

Here in Toronto, we have just experienced a 35-day strike by 30,000 municipal employees which resulted in the complete shut-down of everything from garbage pick-up to city-operated daycares and daycamps. Among other things, the striking workers, many of whom enjoy 18 sick days per year, challenged the city's decision to eliminate a contract provision which enabled them to bank unused sick time to be paid when they left or retired.

In my career, I have belonged to a public sector union. It was mandatory when I was an employee with the Government of Ontario. In the end, it just wasn't for me. I chafed against the notion of paying someone to speak on my behalf and I was surrounded by too many colleagues who had become complacent in their approach to work in the knowledge that the union would "protect" them. I left for more meritorious pastures. On the other hand, I am a beneficiary of organized labour. My husband belongs to a union, a very respectable one, whose leadership seems to focus on relevant issues like making the workplace more family-friendly.
As the manufacturing heart of Canada, Ontario has been hit especially hard by the recession. In the private sector, those who have not already lost their jobs, are facing paycuts, shortened workweeks, the removal of benefits and reduced opportunity for advancement. Those of us who own our own businesses, have had to deal with cancelled orders, slashed budgets and chasing down payments, all while we continue to employ people and inject money into the struggling economy. While none of us is pleased with this turn of events, we are bound together by a realization that life, as we know it, has changed and will never be the same again. Things that we relied upon, including signed contracts, are subject to change. Most importantly, agreements that were made two years ago are being revisited due to pressures beyond everyone's control. At the end of the day, we're happy to be taking home a paycheque.
It is for that reason that I think it was so difficult for Torontonians to get behind the striking workers, all of whom are well compensated and enjoy generous benefits already. In fact, one wonders if government employees even need the protection of organized labour. The thousands of unemployed would gladly have taken the city workers's jobs, even with a pay cut and citizens were at a loss to understand how the union leaders could suggest that provisions that were negotiated during an economic boom, should somehow be guaranteed through a downturn, and beyond. Private sector workers who have accepted paycuts in lieu of losing their jobs certainly didn't have that kind of expectation. And if they did, there was nowhere for them to air their grievances.

Emily Post charaterized etiquette as a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. This certainly wasn't in evidence during the strike as Torontonians had to haul their own garbage to temporary dumps and then deal with irate union members when they arrived. Parents who had booked and paid for summer programs for their children had to scramble to find alternative arrangements. And sadly, the language, on both sides of the argument was deplorable. In a Toronto Star article entitled, Is Mark Ferguson the most hated man in Toronto, the embattled union leader tells of e-mails he has received saying thinks like, "I hate you with all my heart" and "you are a terrorist". Certainly not an appropriate way of dealing with anger. His retort, that "you might redirect your anger towards the banks, financiers and Wall Street rather than cannibalizing gains made by other working people" is equally inappropriate when those "other working people" are paid by taxpayers.

So, the strike is over and in the next couple of days, we'll find out just how much our Mayor gave on our behalf. While I'm relieved that the thousands of tonnes of garbage currently stockpiled in our city parks will be removed, I wonder if we will still be "putting up with garbage" for years to come.

I look forward to your polite responses.


  1. You make some excellent points here, Louise.

    I was happy when the strike ended. But it was for personal reasons; I would no longer have to make the trek to the dump.

    However, on further reflection, and especially considering the jockeying for position we saw about the outdoor union workers returning to the job, I see this as a lose-lose situation for the city and its residents.

    It's too bad that our Mayor is still hanging onto the notion that the settlement is 'good' for the city. He should have the courage to be honest about the situation. We did capitulate. There may be valid reasons to end the strike at this point in time, but we did so at a cost.

    And that makes me a little sick (something I can't bank).

  2. I agree Martin. Looks like it's the mayor who needs an etiquette lesson now. Claiming victory in the face of defeat is just sad. Honesty, grace and an apology to the citizens of Toronto are what's called for.