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Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Thoughts Occasioned by a Strike

I know I’m going to get some heat for this post, but The Spectacled Avenger is nothing if not intrepid in his pursuit of truth, justice, and the Arcadian way, even if it means that he occasionally ruffles a few feathers.

Outdoor workers in the city in which I live have been on strike for over two weeks now, with no end in sight. Foremost among the services affected is waste collection.

I’m sure that my opinions on labour unions are such as would make most of my personal friends consider me a reactionary wing nut. The subject is too vast and controversial for me to consider in much detail here. I can, however, refer readers to my previous posting “A Tiger by the Tail” (March 8, 2009), as well as to my comments on rent-seeking behaviour in “Are We All Keynesians Now?” (March 16, 2009). Suffice it to say that, while I recognize the legal (not moral) right of unions to exist, and while I recognize that they once may have played a necessary social role, for the most part I despise them, and I generally trust them less than the capitalist exploiters they claim to oppose. As for public-sector unions in particular, their activities drift dangerously close to the boundaries of treason, close enough that such unions should probably be prohibited for the public good.

There. I said it.

I haven’t always felt this way. There was a time when I wanted nothing more than to work in a union shop. Since then, I have had experience on all sides of the fence: I have worked in both union and non-union environments, I have managed employees in both union and non-union environments, and I have furthermore had the very enlightening experience of being the employee of a union, thereby having the opportunity of seeing the whole racket from the inside.

Having been “protected” by a union, I can honestly say that I’d rather be protected by the local Mafia crew: in neither case am I allowed to opt out of the “service”, and the Mafia is probably more effective. Nine times out of ten, my union actively worked against my interests.

Having worked for a union, I can say that they care about nothing but their own financial gain and self-perpetuation, and they would think nothing of bringing society to its knees if it means a few extra bucks in their pockets. Indeed, they would not stick at sacrificing those very workers they claim to represent.

Having worked for the government relations department of a union, I can say that unions are just as corrupt, and just as destructive of the public integrity of society, as any large corporation or organized crime group. And yet, they are always the first to cloak their dubious activities in the rhetoric of “rights”, “justice”, and other moral concepts of whose meaning they haven’t the slightest inkling.

The teacher’s union I worked for liked to claim that everything they did was “for the children”, and if you disagreed with them you were automatically denounced as an antisocial monster. It was by far the most intolerant atmosphere I’ve ever worked in. And yet, all their activities seemed calculated to undermine the quality and long-term viability of public education. Something they were successful at was creating more — and better paid — positions for dues-paying teachers. In that sense, I guess they were worth the skim they took. Tony Soprano would approve.

Again, these are all general claims based on my personal experiences, and I have neither the time nor patience to lay out all my personal grievances in their sordid details. You’ll have to take my word for it.

Let us instead return to the municipal strike. In the media war (which, incidentally, the union seems to be losing), the strikers’ case seems most often to rest on two general arguments. There are other arguments made which turn on the specific issues at stake, but to the outsider these issues seem very petty and insubstantial, so I’d like to limit myself to the consideration of the two more general ones. They are: (i) unions protect all of us, by propping up wages, and (ii) those regular citizens who disagree with the strikers’ cause are motivated by mere envy.

I. “Unions Protect All of Us”

This is an old chestnut. The idea is that if there were no unions, employers would be able to ride roughshod over all of us. This is the labour version of the free-marketeer’s cry of “A rising tide floats all boats!”

Let us grant, for the sake of simplicity, that this argument had some validity in an earlier and less regulated era of capitalism. Is it still valid? If public-sector unions raise the wages of their employees, then that raise must come at some equivalent cost to taxpayers (or to their children, as the case may be). It’s simply a zero-sum game: their gain must be our loss.

“But”, the argument goes, “their gain is our gain too, because upward pressure is exerted on wages, which hopefully means higher wages for the rest of us.” Yes, and we’ll need those higher wages in order to pay for the increased cost of public services (which services, incidentally, seem to be ever-expanding, thanks in part to union lobbying). And because the rest of us are now supposedly earning more, producers must pass their increased wage costs on to us in the form of higher prices for goods.

When costs are artificially increased to more than the market would otherwise bear, the result is inflation. And inflation hurts us all. Inflation is not the only way in which unions hurt us all; there are also the countless little injustices they perpetrate, in the form of such things as “closed shops" and restricted access to employment opportunities, as well as their preference for seniority over merit. I could, of course, go on.

II. “The Public is Just Envious”

In the current strike, I keep hearing union advocates making the following claim: “The public’s denunciation of union demands simply represents their envy of those who have union jobs.” I don’t know why the pro-union camp continues to make this claim, because insulting the public like this can’t be gaining them many supporters. But then again, the union doesn’t need to care about the public. After all, the angrier we get, the more pressure there will be on our despicably ineffectual and corrupt mayor to resolve the strike, and the easiest way to do that will be to give the union what it wants. (Even if the dispute is forced into arbitration, past history shows that the union is more likely to get what it wants there, so it’s win-win for them.)

For the 76% or so of the public that is opposed to the strikers’ demands (according to a Toronto Star poll conducted in the day or two following the beginning of the strike), the union and its supporters “reason” with us by telling us we’re just motivated by vicious envy. Where I might like to take one of those jobs at a fraction of the pay, I am told that I am just jealous. Nice.

In any case, you don’t have to be a philosopher to see that this is not really an argument at all. Rather, it’s an ad hominem attack, so I feel justified in fighting fallacy with fallacy. Mine will take the form of a tu quoque (“you also”) attack: When it comes time to negotiate a new contract, unions are always the first to justify their outrageous demands by appealing to some other sector of workers — however inappropriate the comparison — that earns more than they do. Now that sounds an awful lot like envy to me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating a return to the bad old days when children worked in mines and strikes were broken by the cracking of heads. But common sense must prevail. We should question the need for public-sector unions, at least. And more should be done to expose the dubious motives and the crooked day-to-day activities of unions, much as we are so wont to do with corporations.

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