This is why we hate unions
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 3 May 2008)

When you hear the phrase "Canadian values," you know something ugly and mendacious is beginning -- a speech by Paul Martin, for instance.

Martin made unctuous bragging about Canadian values (he said they were the envy of the world) into the closest thing he had to a platform when he stumbled toward defeat in the 2006 election and turned over the government to Stephen Harper. But it was Martin's friend and admirer, Basil Eldon ("Buzz") Hargrove, the head of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), who used those words this week, in an exceptionally foolish article he contributed to the Toronto Star.

Hargrove probably admired the way Martin wielded the phrase when they appeared together during the campaign, both wearing CAW windbreakers, so that Hargrove could help Martin and the Liberals stay in office. Hargrove believes in tactical voting, and imagines himself a master of this devious art, though his record so far, in provincial and federal politics, has not reflected the canniness the work requires.

In 2006, he urged all progressive citizens, including his fellow New Democrats, to vote for the candidates most likely to defeat the Conservatives. Often that meant a Liberal, and Martin was duly appreciative. But Hargrove grew so intoxicated by his anything-to-stop-the-Tories rhetoric that he went a big step farther and recommended voting for the Bloc Quebecois if that would help do the job. He thus aligned himself with a party that has so far kept secret whatever enthusiasm it may feel for "Canadian values," or even Canada. This gaffe so embarrassed Martin that he felt called upon to say that he didn't agree with separatism. It also put another rock in the hands of the eventual prime minister, Stephen Harper. In the end, Hargrove did Martin no good at all. (He did manage, though, to harm as well as infuriate the NDP.)

Hargrove has rarely sounded sillier than he did this week, when he supported the sneak attack on the Toronto public by public-transit workers. Union leaders representing Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) staff had threatened a strike, then negotiated what they considered a satisfactory agreement. For obscure reasons, the workers voted against their leadership and immediately went out on strike, giving the public no notice. Before anyone heard about the walkout, it was only hours away.

This produced a weekend of chaotic disruption, intense frustration and widespread fury among the voters. In a rare Sunday session, the Ontario legislature passed emergency legislation that sent the union back to work. New Democrat members, who no doubt had heard from their constituents, joined in. It seemed the only intelligent response. The obvious next step will be to declare the TTC an essential service and deny its union the right to strike.

But Hargrove felt called upon to explain that the public and the legislators were wrong. In doing so, he demonstrated why the self-destructive rhetoric of labour leaders has helped to make trade unionism a diminishing force in Canada, everywhere except in government services.

Hargrove was troubled, he wrote, by what he called the "knee-jerk political reactions" of the legislature. He would have been glad, apparently, to see the whole city paralyzed until every last union member was satisfied. He was disappointed that the legislature had defied "core Canadian values of fairness, respect and solidarity." It seemed to him an attack on the ability of the workers to resolve workplace issues with management -- something the workers had just proven they couldn't do. Moreover, he argued, it sets a precedent for workers in other parts of the country. We should all hope so.

The snap strike was of course brief -- called on Friday, it was over by late Sunday. That gave Hargrove a chance to brush it off as "this isolated, two-day incident," an event of no consequence. But on Sunday morning, at the Tim Hortons franchise near Dufferin Street and Finch Avenue in the northwest corner of Toronto, the absence of the TTC was a small nightmare. Because staff members usually come to work by public transit, most of them couldn't make it. They lost a day's pay while three employees, someone in the kitchen and two servers, frantically tried to satisfy impatient customers.

Nobody was heard expressing friendliness toward the TTC workers. And, even though it was Tim Hortons, not a word was said about Canadian values.

To paraphrase a famous remark of Leon Trotsky, professional labour leaders are expected to be fatuous, but Buzz Hargrove abuses the privilege.

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