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Eating Our Own, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Man Keeping Me Down

As I write, a city-wide outside public worker strike has brought many vital services (including garbage collection and public day care) in Toronto to a screeching halt. Neither side had done a good job of handling the politics of this, and both the city government and CUPE have come off looking ridiculous for their respective parts in bringing things to this point. Coming together in an impressively destructive lose-lose situation for all concerned, the smart money among the local punditry expects the strike to drag on for weeks if not months. Torontonians on both sides of the strike might look on the example of Windsor and despair.

Even though it shouldn’t really surprise me anymore, I was struck while reading the opinions about the strike posted online by my various acquaintances by the prevailing anti-union sentiment. The obligatory complaints about smelly garbage piling up in the streets and closed day care centres aside, what got me were statements like the striking workers should be “just happy to still have a job” and that “(a) trained chimp could do the outdoors workers jobs”. Such comments go beyond venting about the inconvenience caused by an interruption of city services, and slide towards jingoistic demonization of the strikers. Obviously, this is easy for me to say since, as a resident of St. Catharines, my garbage is still be collected. (For the record, I live in a region that already outsourced its garbage collection to a non-union company, yet somehow our property tax rates are higher than Metro Toronto’s. Go figure.) None-the-less, I find this kind of vitriol against the union curious — especially when it’s being spewed by those who are otherwise socially, politically, and economically onside with the interests of organized labour.

How does one explain this? Perhaps it’s simple jealousy, with workers who struggle to eke out out their living resenting the guys with the cushy union jobs. Again, the example of St. Catharines is illustrative. Before its prodigious fall, the biggest employer in St. Catharines was General Motors. These days, St. Catharines’ biggest employer is the Niagara District School Board. Union support runs deep in this town, but just as deep is the anti-union resentment of those who (usually through lack of a nepotistic hook-up) can’t get one of those union jobs with the better pay, better benefits, and greater job security.

The seeds of working-class contempt for organized labour get sown in this way, with workers turning their anger on their fellows who manage to win concessions from their employers rather than the employers themselves. Instead of seeing organized workers as compatriots whose success is an example to follow, workers on the outside  see unionized workers as overpaid do-nothings who strike whenever they don’t get yet another raise. These seeds are nurtured by those who serve the interests of employers, in very much the same way that North American conservatives have castigated the public sector as being “inefficient” and “anti-business” for the last 100 years. The end result: members of the working class fighting each other and diluting the gains of the last century of organized labour rather than working together to make things better for everyone.

Do I support CUPE in this struggle? Yes, here is where my default sympathies lie, but the broader truth is that I despair of why struggles like this are necessary at all in our society. Organized labour is only half of a good idea, since it still pre-supposes and pre-necessitates antagonism against the ownership class. Conceiving labour relations as a struggle between worker and owner is endemic of Western modernity’s focus on self-interested individualism, that each of us is only out for ourselves. Worker versus owner, non-union worker versus union worker: both are manifestations of the possessive individualist spirit of our modern age, and both are instances of how that spirit makes us consume each other in a zero-sum game where no one wins. Until that is addressed, painful struggles like the one making Toronto stink to high heaven are inevitable and we will go on blaming each other instead of doing something about it.

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  1. […] half-assed attempts to undo the damage from the last time the Tories were in power. (See my earlier remarks regarding the Toronto strike.) As a result, they are champing at the bit for the Tories to come […]