David McLaren on unions

Think unions are irrelevant?

'With the degree of inequality now the same as it was in the 1920s,

unions are as needed now as they were then'

By David McLaren

Monday 6 March 2017 — A little while ago, Postmedia ran yet another editorial slamming civil servants and their unions for costing us all too much money and pointing to the private sector for how things should be – as if that’s any kind of legitimate measures in these days of precarious work and even more precarious wages and benefits.
The editorial was, I believe, in support of a report from the right wing Fraser Institute that compared public sector wages and benefits with the private sector. It decided that the public employees were being overpaid. But you can use the same report to say that private sector workers are underpaid.
And the data would back you up. Salaries for the vast majority of Canadians have stagnated over the past 30 years or risen only 2% -- in other words we’re doing worse than the economy. But compensation for the 10% at the top of the heap has increased a whopping 76%. CEOs in Canada now make 184% of what they pay their average workers.
Postmedia’s continuing complaints about public service pay is richly ironic when you consider how quickly the chain is shedding jobs, including top journalists. It’s macabre when you also consider that right after kicking more people to the curb in an effort to trim 20% off the cost of salaries, the CEO, Mr Godfrey, and his gang gave themselves $2.3 million in bonuses. But the editorial becomes self-satire when you remember that this same Mr Godfrey recently told the federal government that, due to a sharp down-turn in newspaper revenues, his and other publications need nay, deserve, to be bailed out with public funds.
The newspaper business is indeed in trouble, but Mr Godfrey’s predicament is as much his fault for adhering to the same old business model (selling ads in hard copy) even as the business of news changes around him. By the way, the union that represents journalists demanded Mr Godfrey and his crew put their big bonuses into keeping actual news people. They did not.
Speaking of unions, I’ve heard folks say that unions aren’t relevant anymore. That maybe they were needed back in the ‘20s when the bosses were making money hand over fist and setting the goons on their own workers and trying to keep workers wages too low to live on (gee, except for the goons, that sounds like today). But now, I’ve heard, unions are long past their expiry date.
Well, let’s see …
The Canadian Union of Brewery Workers struck Molson Coors because the company had refused to come to the table with a fair deal. The union put a modest increase in workers’ pay scale up for bargaining and even offered concessions – reductions in overtime and weekend pay, and changes to their pensions.
Molson Coors response? The company filed a court injunction against the union’s lawful picket and sued for $6 million in damages for ‘irreparable harm.’ Seriously? On a legal strike? The judge threw out both applications.
I was head of a union myself for a few years … the Toronto Writers Guild. We negotiated pay scales and benefits for our members with private and public sector producers. And we protected writers’ property. I can tell you for a certainty, that without the Guild I would have been ripped off for both work and wages.
After 46 days of strike, Molson Coors settled on February 26. The workers got their increase in pay, but they had to give up their post-retirement benefits when they hit 65 (things like prescription drugs, medical, physio).
With the degree of inequality now the same as it was in the 1920s, unions are as needed now as they were then. As for Mr Godfrey – grow a heart buddy.
David McLaren is an award-winning writer who lives and works on the shore of Georgian Bay in Bruce County