Some 40 years ago, my mother and her fellow nurses staged a protest to help bring a union to their downtown Toronto hospital. My siblings and I painted placards, and I remember watching the nurses, impossibly glamorous with their giant 1970s hair and blue eyeshadow, march around the hospital. A man driving by rolled down his window and hollered, "Florence Nightingale would roll in her grave if she could see you!"
Around that time, Pete Seeger's Talking Union was often on the turntable at our house: "They'll raid your meetings, hit you on the head," Pete sang, "call every one of you a goddamned Red. You're unpatriotic! Moscow agents. Bomb throwers, even the kids."
It's odd that we're still singing from the same song sheet 70 years after that tune was written – if you just replace "Moscow agents" with "Porkers feeding at the public trough." Never has it been more fun, or more politically profitable, to bash organized labour. In October, the federal Conservatives placed measures in their budget bill to gut public-sector unions, which will drastically reduce their power to strike and seek arbitration.
The Tories then threw a few more scraps to their base at their convention last month, passing a series of restrictive policy changes, including clawing back public-sector pay and pensions. Apparently there's nothing more galling than the thought of all those civil servants driving to glamorous jobs in Gatineau in their Hummers with diamond-encrusted cupholders. This has been framed by the party as "taxpayers versus the unions," although I just received a memo from Planet Reality, which notes that union members are also taxpayers.
It's not just Ottawa, of course: An article by John Lorinc in The Walrus about the future of unions notes that labour-bashing has been cheap and easy political fuel for municipal and provincial conservatives across the country, with the result that "four in five Canadians believed unions were only concerned about their own members' welfare."
It's classic divide-and-conquer behaviour, or, as I like to think of it, the Keyser Söze con. Fans of The Usual Suspects will remember Söze's immortal line that the devil's greatest trick was convincing the world he didn't exist. It's the greatest trick of big business and its political allies to convince people that organized labour doesn't exist for them. That way, even the people who need it most will think, "Hey, that pencil pusher is making a dollar an hour more than me!" rather than, "Hey, why aren't we both making a dollar more an hour?"
Don't listen to old pinko-pants here. Listen to Robert Reich, who, though a progressive, somehow wormed his way into the heart of the establishment – he was Bill Clinton's (unhappy) secretary of labour, he's a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and now he's the star of a documentary called Inequality for All. He talked about the demonization of labour in a recent interview with The Globe and Mail: "Instead of demanding that we normalize upward, and that everybody gets back to the standard of wages and benefits that unionized workers now have, there's a tendency to blame unionized workers for earning too much. The very powerful in our societies have shown a remarkable genius for dividing and conquering the middle class and the poor."
The Globe's own series on income inequality links the decline in private-sector union membership with the hollowing out of middle-class wages. And yet the popular perception of labour's worth keeps dropping. It's been a long time since anyone flocked to theatres to cheer for Sally Field holding up her hastily scribbled "union" sign.
That's partly labour's fault. As Mr. Lorinc noted, some unions have not exactly been nimble in confronting new economic realities or wooing low-income workers, and instead move with the agility of a Clydesdale pulling a beer wagon. They have an image problem.
That could change, of course. A rising tide of outrage could still raise all boats. The flash strikes at fast-food joints in the United States this year have turned up the heat under plans for a minimum-wage hike. And keep your eyes on Wal-Mart this week: The giant retailer, resolutely anti-union (but pro-persecuting employees who dare agitate) will be the site of protests by some of its workers – or "associates," as they're known, in a triumph of marketing-speak. Among the workers' demands are more full-time (rather than part-time) jobs, freedom from retaliation for organizing and a minimum wage of $13 an hour.
They plan to demonstrate outside stores on Black Friday, the day when a flood of Americans (and, increasingly, Canadians) go searching for holiday bargains. I hope they don't get trampled in the stampede for cheap televisions and juice boxes and instead manage, in the words of Pete Seeger, to "take it easy, but take it."