Unions and public opinion: the Toronto strike

Post by Eric Mang in

20 comments

On strike in Toronto, CanWest photo
On strike in Toronto, CanWest photo

Earlier this week, I was attending a meeting across from Toronto City Hall. I stopped briefly to chat with a few CUPE members who were picketing the municipal parking garage (the cavern beneath Nathan Phillips Square) requiring each driver to wait for a few minutes before passing.

A short line of about five cars extended out onto Queen Street. Most of the drivers were civil, but one jackass, bluetooth scarab beetle in ear, idling in his GM Climate-Changer, was madly honking his horn. Not the staccato beeping you hear around Toronto whenever Italy wins the World Cup, but a long, furious, sustained blare.

I peered in to see this man, a wide-eyed loon, gripped with rage. He then opened his door, summoned up the phlegm he had been angrily storing in his gullet, and spat at our feet. The CUPE workers I was speaking with were women. I wondered if he noticed that I was standing near his horking ground zero.

Our eyes met. “What the f--- is wrong with you?” I asked. He hurriedly shut his door. Was dropping the f-bomb wise? Should I have left it alone and walked away? Why did I let myself give in to the same base emotions I am now criticizing this fellow for exercising? At times I have a volatile temper. Learning to turn down the heat is one of my self-improvement projects.

So I could understand why Mr. Horn Blaster in the SUV was frustrated, but what’s happened, for both he and I, to our sense of civility?

Although hardly a scientific sampling of public opinion, news message boards are brimming with hate-filled, loathsome comments regarding the Toronto strike. Utterances that I don’t think many would have the courage (or manners) to say to another’s face.

I listen to streeters on CBC’s Here and Now and I hear my fellow Torontonians using words like “tragedy,” “I don’t how I’m going to handle this,” and “outrage” to describe their feelings about the strike. While I think some of these people need to get a better sense of perspective, who am I to judge how another wants to express their feelings? 

In a just-released Toronto Star/Angus Reid poll of 500 Torontonians, 76% of those polled aren’t pleased with the unions (Locals 79 and 416). And Mayor Miller, whose approval rating was at an okay 41% on the second day of the strike, has now dropped to 33% on the strike’s 19th day. Having said this, I don’t have access to the poll’s methodology or what questions were asked (although given the sample size, the poll’s margin of error is +/- 4.4%, 19 times out of 20), so I make the above citation with a modicum of caution.

With about three-quarters of Torontonians irked with the unions, what does this mean and could we see more incivility in our streets?

I think it’s more than inconvenience that has many feeling “outraged” or at least a little pissed. It’s also the way this strike is being characterized in the media. While conservatives complain that there is a liberal bias to the media and liberals complain of the opposite, with both typically founding their complaints on some degree of confirmation bias, a brief literature search of peer-reviewed studies of media biases in Canada didn’t yield much (if anyone knows of a good, evidence-based study, please share it with me).

However, individual publications have right and left slants. The National Post is a right-wing newspaper. So are many of the Sun-chain papers. The Toronto Star might be centre-left. The Globe and Mail is occasionally centrist but with new editor John Stackhouse, might be seen to be making a rightward tilt.

But these newspapers are influential and one must ask whether they are having any effect on opinions regarding the strike. What’s also worth asking is whether there is an age division of opinion. Younger people seem to be more skeptical of MSM and get their info from a variety of on-line sources. Older people still like print and perhaps don’t have as much interest in web-based news or alternative sources of reporting (studies seem to indicate that age has a positive effect on newspaper readership).

Check out these two very different viewpoints on the Toronto strike. One is written by James Laxer, a left-wing intellectual and founder of The Waffle. The other is by Marcus Gee, the new Globe Toronto columnist (he replaced John Barber) who usually writes right-wing op-eds. Laxer’s column appears in the non-mainstream rabble.ca. It has a relatively small audience, particularly compared to the Globe.

Both pieces are worth reading. Then ponder. Are you “outraged,” do you fall within the 76% of Torontonians who disapprove of unions’ actions or do you side with Laxer?

20 Comments

I think most people are "outraged" because the unionized workers are paid more, have better benefits, and enjoy job security that private sector workers can only dream about. And the middle of the worst recession most people have experienced, where practically everyone knows someone who got laid off, these workers want raises on top of their cushy benefits.

Of course, you can prefer to imagine that everyone who doesn't feel sympathy for the comfy union workers is just an evil rich SUV-driving planet-destroyer.

Hi Foo,

According to Statscan, in Ontario, a unionized worker earns an hourly wage of $26.40 on average and a non-unionized worker earns $24.35.

And if you think that benefits and job security are things "private sector workers can only dream about", why wouldn't you want to fight for them? Why do you want people to live in fear and uncertainty? We (the collective "we") have this odd notion that the workplace should be unstable and that we should be happy we have a job. That's a horrid and Victorian way of thinking. I'm hoping we can get past this.

Read my June 29 post for a longer argument on this: http://www.citycaucus.com/2009/06/angry-capitalists-and-toronto-bah-be-happy-you-have-a-job

As for the SUV-driving jerk, he wasn't a metaphor for those who disagree with the unions. He was an actual jerk.

Nothing like greedy, self centered, not caring Unions to set off the anger in citizens.

Public sector unions are out of control - there is no such thing as an efficient monopoly and by allowing the sole sourcing of public sector utilities to CUPE et al, we have allowed a very dangerous monopoly to get its rapacious tentacles into the public purse.

Fred,

These are interesting normative statements. But if you could provide evidence backing up your assertions, that would be appreciated.

What about the unelected private sector (which has been shown on numerous occasions to not be as accountable or transparent or cost-effective as the public sector) getting its rapacious tentacles on your and my money? When they have a bottom line to observe, they typically do not operate for the public good.

I've used evidence in my past posts to counter neoliberal ideology, but perhaps there's just no persuading some.

Eric

I too would be P.O.'d at the picketers who were deliberately interrupting my day without regard to my schedule. Perhaps a big gob directed at the picketers was excessive, but how else do you (or can you) show your contempt for their selfish actions?
I hope the City keeps them out on the picket line all summer or for however long it takes the unionized civil servants to come to their senses. And then the politicians must contract out the garbage and recyclables collection so that the City does not again become trapped by the union workers.

Eric,

It is certainly the right of the CUPE workers to strike. The goal of their actions is to create discomfort for the public and therefore force the City to act in their favour. As removal of their services does not create enough discomfort, they perform additional "duties" to further disrupt citizens. If you poke enough people with a stick, someone is likely going to get mad (even though it is never ok to spit at someone).

As a society, we have decided some actions are NOT accpetable for workers in bagaining situations (ie doctors, firefighters and police officers can't simply go on strike). Clearly, this is not an "either or" situation. Should workers have the right to do unpleasant things (other than removal of their services) to force their agenda? I am unaware of any studies that suggest that the public supports these supplementary disruptive actions. If you know of any such studies it would be great for you to share them with us.

A base rate differential is not the only burden that a unionized organization must endure. Perhaps even more costly but more difficult to quantify are things like:
• Inflexible contract language that is designed to maximize the amount of labour utilized;
• Inability to correct poor performers and promote star performers tending to reduce overall performance to the lowest common denominator;
• Benefit packages that hide or shift costs to future periods.
However, unionization in the private sector is not a concern providing there is the discipline of competition to keep costs in check. More troublesome is the public sector where there is no competition and weak or indebted politicians cannot or will not keep costs in check. Managers have little incentive to fight the unions as their compensation will rise in tandem with the unionized staff. The only defence the taxpayer has is to make governments smaller and contract out as much as possible.

Eric,

1. Those numbers exclude benefits. Add in the really generous pensions alone, and they're not in the same ballpark.
2. The private sector workplace is unstable. Fact of life. Companies come and go. Even giants like Nortel and GM and Eatons eventually reach the end of their shelf-life. And most people work in smaller companies that are even more volatile.

That's where the "outrage" comes in. Workers in the private sector expect to earn more because they take a risk with their employment. It seems a reasonable trade-off for public sector works to earn less in return for guaranteed job security.

BUT, what we have now is a situation where public sector works earn more, have better benefits, and jobs for life. That's not reasonable. Or sustainable.

And then, to top it all, when the rest of the workforce is struggling just to stay afloat, these workers are on strike for bigger increases and gold-plated benefits. I think it's you and the unions that are out of touch with reality, not those who criticize them.

And if you are reading my posts, you'll know that I think there is something wrong with our society's reality.

Neoliberalism has been a failure for many human beings; never mind that it's structured for boom and collapse cycles.

In the past 30 years, the rich have gotten richer, the poor poorer and the middle class stretched (check out data compiled by Statscan on this). It's time to change the channel; we need a new reality.

Having said all of this, here's the fundamental difference between you and I, and chances are we won't see eye to eye (it's like Christians I know won't "accept" my atheism): I'm a socialist and you're capitalist. I'm left wing and you're right wing. But here's the great part - I'll listen to you and as long as you don't insult me, I'll try to understand you. I hope you can do the same for me.

I write for CityCaucus because I like the debate and dialogue. But some comments (admittedly some thin-skinned remarks written by me) have been foul, juvenile and cowardly (I sign everything with my actual name and put myself out there. Those who take cheap shots under aliases are seldom worth replying to). And if someone is in a state of sustained rage, it's hard for me to respect them.

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on this post Foo. And I hope that if you think you deserve better benefits in the job you're in, you fight for them.

Dear Eric,

Not all of us who have responded are angry, capitalist or Christians. I simply don't feel that groups should necessarily hold the public hostage to obtain their desired postion or outcome. I may feel that I "desrve better benefits" because I only make $350,000 a year (while others make $500,000), but it would be wrong for me and my Neurosurgery buddies to go on strike. I think that most of us, including the neurosurgeons, would agree that the cost to society is potentially too great to allow this particular right to the bargaining group (although not actually a union). The philosophy that you supporting is rather, might I say, Captalistic.

There will always be outliers (true libertarians or devoted communists), but most of us feeble-minded simple folk expect a reasonable balance between the rights of the individual (or in this case the bargaining group) and those of society. When you purposefully act in a way to annoy or inconvenience people you can reasonably expect that, well, some of them will actually become angry. I suggest that it is completely reasonable to remove service (ie stop your job) for most bargaining groups, but to go beyond that is unreasonable. On this I gather we differ. But reflect on your position when the OMA goes into bargaining with the government (I can only gather you will support the doctors to get whatever raise they feel they deserve and use whatever methods necessary to obtain it)

I simply don't feel that groups should necessarily hold the public hostage to obtain their desired postion or outcome.

Blame the system, not the players.

The Canadian way of labour relations is adversarial by design. In other countries, notably Scandinavia and Germany, labour relations operate under a different model where many of the things Canadian workers must bargain for each and every collective agreement are handled by statute.

It is system worth looking in to.

I would also like to take this moment and say I very much appreciate Eric's posts. He's in the lion's den here :)

Eric,

I'm not a Christian, a capitalist or right wing. I'm an engineer, so I guess that puts me lower than all three :-)

The bottom line is that in any activity, there's risk and reward. There has to be a balance between those two. If you choose to work for an organization where your job security is guaranteed, you have to accept that you will be paid less than the person who works where it isn't.

If you really think there is any kind of society where companies don't go out of business, and people lose their jobs through no fault of their own, then you're right - we'll just have to agree to disagree.

BTW, I work hard at my job, and if the company I work for is successful, I'll see some (small) part of the rewards. If not, I'll be out there looking for a new job. A concept that's quite foreign to those complaining about their terribly unfair public sector jobs.

BTW, here's a bit of irony for you. Your capitalist endeavours on this website to get ad revenue resulted in Google serving up this ad on the comments page:

"Avoid Healthcare Unions
Keep Your facility Union-Free Free previews, order online "

Thanks for the support Spartikus!

And to the others who have taken the time to post comments, I want to thank you for the civil and interesting discourse.

It's been a great discussion so far, and while some of us may disagree with each other, I really appreciate your thoughtful statements.

If I were to read deeply between the lines, I imagine Van Man, Foo and I have more common ground than we think...(both of you said you weren't capitalists, so it got me wondering what your political leanings are...And I don't think capitalism is a dirty word, it simply explains an economic system. Wanted to say that just so you didn't think I was taking cheap shots at anyone)

Eric

Okay enough already with the referred to as the "garbage strike" stuff. I am a member of local 79 and I am a welfare caseworker. I am a single mother. No one has any idea of what a demanding, stressful job being a welfare caseworker is and what kind of abuse we take on the job. We don't get overtime opportunities and we are not paid near enough for the amount of abuse, work and stress we have to endure. Local 79 is a predominately female local who have been historically under valued over the years. We're just trying to keep what was worked so hard for over the years. Other city workers got the 3 % wage increase without concessions on benefits. Fair is fair, why is David Miller now targeting the lowest paid of the civic workers? If his reason is the recession why then was there little evidence of spending constraints in a recession budget? Why should local 416 and 79 be penalized and have to bear the brunt? Why did the city council members get a nice wage increase? For the airhead comments like, "fire the lot of them and contract the work out." Good luck! If you're talking about that for welfare it's a laughable notion. The public is hearing what the media is saying and becoming angrier by the day. Really look at the issues and why we're fighting back.

I think enough is enough. Too many children are suffering as a result of this strike. I do not think we should take anything away from staff. However staff need to be reasonable and agree that what they have they keep and they cannot earn more. I am sure the strikers would like to get back to work. It is hard to feed your family when you are on strike.

So let me recap:
1. They are paid more that the rest of us
2. They get more sick days than the rest of us
3. They get other perks that may or may not be applicable to the rest of us
4. They inconvenience how many millions of torontonians by garbage piling, daycare closings and illegaly picketing public spaces
5. They want our respect and support

Hell, no. Outrage and no trace of respect, that's what their actions ask for, that's what they're getting. I hope someone has the guts to teach them a lesson.
Police stays aside while they inconvenience the rest of us, wtf, does the majority have no rights in this city? Fine them and send them home, damn it!

Why am I to blame? Are you looking for my support? Make a case, don't waste my time at the parking lots and garbage dropoffs. Really people have you thought your actions through? I may have originally supported your point but now, I definitely am against your raise, just because this is my only (legal) way to return the favors.

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