13 February 2009

Unions and Bosses

In the post below I inadvertently yoked unrestricted capitalism in the same category as Communism and Nazism. I don't believe it belongs in the same category, but nor do I believe it is without its victims. If anyone took offense, I apologize, but I want to draw attention to my modifier: I said unrestricted capitalism.

Let me begin by speaking about one of the larger restrictions placed upon capitalism: unions. People sometimes ask me what I think about unions, being a union member and having had dealings with several throughout my various careers. My answer is that I respect and detest them. I am glad I have a union helping me, but they have also put the shaft to me.

Back when I was a T.A., I had a professor who illegally put a letter of reprimand on my file. There is a long process involved in reprimanding anyone, but he, for petty reasons, circumvented the whole process and reprimanded me on a specious pretext (I had missed a lecture of his because I had to take my daughter to a specialist after her foot had been burned in an accident.) I wanted the letter removed from my file, and since it was there illegally it should have been an easy matter for the union to achieve. Except they didn't. The person I spoke to told me it wasn't a very harsh reprimand, and I should work on smoothing things over with the professor. Her comments also made it clear to me that she would have been more interested in pursuing my case had I been a minority or a female. I could not believe what I was hearing- I couldn't believe a union would tell a member to go suck up to a boss. The only thing I wanted to smooth over on this guy was the dirt over his unmarked grave.

I did finally get rid of that letter, but my own methods were as questionable as the professor's. I went to the program office one day, and discovered a very harassed temp working the office, rather than our usual secretary. I asked the temp very politely if I could see my own file, which T.A.'s were allowed to do, but the secretary was supposed to remove some items first before giving handing over the files. Items like reprimands. So I got my file, flipped through, found the letter and slipped it into my pocket before handing the file back.

I also had another very bad experience with unions back when I was a student working a summer job at an oil refinery. I worked a job with the union, but I was not a member of the union. It was the summer of the Post Office Strike, '87, I think. The nightly news was full of how the government tried to bring in scab labour- students like me- across the picket lines, only to have the strikers break into the trucks carrying the students, and beat the living daylights out of them. Such scenes filled the members of the Union at the refinery with a sense of solidarity and pride. "Those punks deserve what they got," I was told more than once. "They're messing with a man's life."

The feeling of pride had a kind of cascade effect, and the union began to get restless at the refinery. They began launching grievances in the hundreds, other job actions, and there was talk of an illegal wildcat strike. The men with whom I worked began giving me warnings in the event that a wildcat strike happened. "Look, we like you," they told the three students who worked there. "But we can't protect you if you try and cross the line." It was a friendly warning. We assured them we had no intention of crossing any picket line. We saw the news, we knew what would happen. A week later the warnings had changed. "Go ahead," they said. "Try and cross our picket lines. See what happens to you." We reassured them, none of us intended to cross any picket lines. A week later, the fourteen men with whom I worked lined up the three of us and began telling us one by one what they personally would do to us if we tried to cross the line. All this, and at no point did we ever say we thought about crossing a line. The strike never happened.

So I have a fair ambivalence towards the unions to which I have belonged. Union members have failed to help me, have sold me out to their advantage, and have threatened me. Why then do I say I respect unions? Because I know what went before.

In the past the worker was often just another resource to be used and spit out. Prior to the twentieth century, and a a ways into it, workers worked fourteen hour days, could be fired for little or no reason, in grossly unsafe working conditions. Death on the job was common. Child labour was common, and children being maimed or killed was common. Women also worked the fourteen hour shifts six days a week, so there was very often no parents at home to look after the children. Youth crime and gangs were, not surprisingly, a major problem in turn of the century Toronto and other major cities. The working class nightmare in the writings of Charles Dickens was not something he invented, it was something he described from his own experience. The "Dark Satanic Mills" were not a poetic metaphor, but an apt description. There was a reason why Marx's ideas took hold. Working conditions were hideous. Something- anything- had to be better.

My own father worked under harsh and unsafe conditions. In the '30's he got a job at a wire making factory and was glad to have it. He said you could tell how long anyone had worked at the factory by the number of fingers they had. If they had all ten, they had been there less than a year. Some guys, in my Dad's inimitable turn of phrase, "Didn't have enough fingers to pick their noses." Dad left less than a year later for another job, making fireworks. That company's idea of job place safety was to build the fireworks in a series of isolated shacks, so only one worker was blown up at a time. The death rate seems to have been about one or two a year. This was not a cause of too much concern. In the Depression, there was always a supply of men ready to step into a dangerous job for the whiff of a pay cheque.

After the War, Dad went back to his job at the fireworks company, only to discover a new problem. The company had hired more people for War contract, but with the war over the contracts were gone, and with Japan's economy starting up again, Japanese fireworks were being imported. In the face of the competition the management decided to make pay the workers according to piecework. Now, paying people who handle explosives by the piece not only goes against common sense, it is also completely illegal. Management pushed it through anyway, and the men caved. Anything was better than nothing. Dad quit and found work elsewhere. The company eventually folded.

One of the places where the first real union struggles took place were in the coal fields. The reason why is because conditions there were particularly bad. The miners lived in mining towns, usually set up and run by the company. The company would build houses - in some cases not too bad, in many cases unheated shacks- and would rent them to the workers. They would build schools and a store for the workers. Except the rent was several times what a worker would pay elsewhere, and the store charged 3 times what would be paid for at another store, or even from a catalogue. For many mining towns, buying your goods anywhere but the company store could be a firing offense. The men who worked the mines found very often found themselves going into debt more and more with every pay cheque. When the men died, their sons took their place in the mines. Some sons were told by their bosses that the sons inherited their father's debt and had to pay it off. The sons could have known that debt is not inherited if they had been taught that at school. Did I mention the company ran the schools? Their workforce was not much more than slaves.

In another charming little twist for the coal miners, the companies steadfastly refused to admit there was any such thing as "coal miner's death", what we now call black lung, in spite of rising anecdotal evidence. In fact, in the twenties, several companies hired a few doctors who wrote a report on the healthful and beneficial effects of inhaling coal dust. Sound familiar to anyone?

So when I say "unrestricted capitalism," this is the sort of thing I am thinking of. That was all in the past, you may say. It was, I admit it. But I do not, not for one second, think today's bosses are any better. In fact, now that there are laws in place stating that bosses must care for the safety of their workforce, and must no longer employ children, many companies move to places where there are no such laws, where they can engage in unsafe practices without restrictions, and, yes, hire children to work. Unions, as odious as they may be, as loathsome as I find many of their members. are one of the few things that stand between us and history.

If I were to say one last word about capitalism, I would paraphrase Winston Churchill's statement about democracy: Capitalism is the worst system imaginable, except for all those other systems. My opinion of unions is the same.

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