Sunday, August 02, 2009

Your Sunday journamalism: Angelo Persichilli on unions

Media commentary, from the sublime last week to the patently ridiculous today.

What does Toronto Star writer Angelo Persichilli know about unions? Not a heck of a lot, it seems, but even where ignorance fails to deliver the smackdown this "award-winning political columnist" attempts to administer, there are always contradictions to help out. Here are his theses, and my commentary:
  • Unions are utterly selfish, concerned only with their own members. Nowhere is it explained why, if this is the case, unions join larger bodies. There are district labour councils, provincial and territorial federations of labour, and, of course, the Canadian Labour Congress. There are alliances with social partners, such as Canada Without Poverty, the Canadian Health Coalition and the Council of Canadians. There are international alliances, too, from worker-to-worker solidarity with unions in other countries, to the ICFTU.

  • Unions care only about wages and benefits, at the expense of non-unionized workers. One assumes that Persichilli is here referring to the amazing fact that unionized workers enjoy better wages and working conditions than the unorganized. That seems to be an argument for unions, not against them, but there you are. And major unions aren't hunkering down to protect their turf against all these unorganized workers--quite a few have been enjoying considerable success in organizing them.

  • Unions live in isolation, caring nothing about the rest of the country or workers in other parts of the world. That's a restatement, of course, of Persichilli's first point, but repetition is the soul of propaganda. This claim is obviously bogus, in any event. Unions have been setting up substantial social justice funds to benefit other workers at home and abroad. In many cases, these funds are directly bargained with employers and form part of the collective agreement.

    There are so many examples of these broad social initiatives that one wonders precisely who is living in isolation. Has "award-winning political columnist"
    been spending his time in a sensory deprivation tank? How could he not be aware of what is by now a commonplace feature of major unions?

  • Greedy unions like the Toronto garbage workers are always demanding more. On the specifics of the Toronto garbage workers strike, Rick Salutin has already spoken eloquently. But just to reiterate, briefly: these workers did little more than try to keep what they already had, and on that they had to give ground. Persichilli, like a host of other dishonest or ignorant commentators, is suggesting that the union was making new demands, whereas it was the employer that was doing so, demanding (and receiving) concessions.

  • Union leaders are promoting their own political agendas. Good grief, you can't win. If you show no concern about anything but your members, you're selfish and your union is isolated and uncaring. But if you support a broader social agenda, you're venturing into territory in which you have no business.

    Most union leaders are content--sometimes too content, in my view, but no matter--to work with moderately labour-friendly but unpredictable politicians rather than to run for office themselves. After all, they already have their own large constituencies, and are more effective promoting their members' concerns from that base rather than becoming just another MP, MLA or MPP.

    But those who have run, like my friends Peggy Nash and Sid Ryan, have been trying to bring a labour focus to the legislative process, and, it must be said, to their New Democratic Party itself, which has not infrequently run off the rails on labour issues. It's interesting that Persichilli brings up Bob Rae, whose disastrous anti-labour policies once in officeblew up in his face
    --"Rae Days," anyone?--and cost Ontario workers dearly for many years afterwards.
The odd thing about Persichilli's tired assembly of anti-labour clichés is that it doesn't go anywhere. Most anti-union writers in recent times have been at least sophisticated enough to suggest alternatives--"right to work" laws, anti-strike legislation and so on. There has been some attempt at analysis. But in this period of deep recession, in which workers are naturally expected to pay for the blunders of the super-rich, a crude compilation of well-worn slurs is assumed to be sufficient to divide workers among themselves.

After all, insulting unions plays very well in some quarters, and always has. But insulting the readers' intelligence may not fare as well.

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