Tuesday was the night that changed my mind about unions and their role in society.
When I think about unions' role as employee representatives in relations with their employers, I still have a positive view. Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, I've seen the sort of prosperity that the union has brought to its members. Despite its blue collar base, Windsor has the third highest average income in Canada.
In my estimation, this success has not really come at a cost to the corporations in town. The CAW makes a good partner for DaimlerChrysler, Ford and General Motors. The unions, besides collective bargaining and looking out for their members' rights on the shop floor also represent an effective organization for the employers to work with in dealing with the employer-employee relationship. Out of necessity, they have evolved into two forces that frequently are working towards the same ends.
The unions have learned that when it comes to their jobs, they frequently have the same mission as the corporation. The powerful union plus powerful corporation combination can indeed have great influence, across the political spectrum.
In Windsor, recently, this played out unsuccessfully in the form of CAW pressure on governments for massive subsidies to DaimlerChrysler. When the new plant deal fell through, Buzz Hargrove was on the front page of The Windsor Star lashing out at Ernie Eves and Jean Chrétien for not coming through with the hundreds of millions of dollars demanded.
I found myself asking if this was such a bad thing. Yes, it would have been nice for Windsor to get those jobs but was a mega subsidy really in the best interests of our society? My inclination was to say no, but I didn't give it much more thought.
On Tuesday, at the Waterfront Mayoral Debate, I got an eye-opener. Perhaps naively, I was under the impression that unions in Canada represented a progressive force. They were part of the public debate as advocates for education, the environment, and other issues that are important to me. I didn't always agree with them, but I thought of them as a somewhat benevolent force in our society.
At the debate, I saw something quite different. CAW members from Bombardier were there to fight back against the anti-airport movement. Hundreds of local residents were dismayed at the foolish plans to expand the island airport, but these workers were there to heckle them and ask pro-airport questions of the candidates.
These middle-aged men with snarky attitudes, obviously there to do a job on candidate David Miller, gave me an uneasy feeling. I don't know where the thought came from, but what they reminded me of more than anything else were the company-paid thugs that employers used to use to beat up union organizers or striking workers.
But it wasn't their tactics that annoyed me the most. It was the clear evidence that they, and the management of their union right up to the top, have no regard for the public interest whatsoever. They are as mercenary as any corporation, and are willing to do whatever it takes to keep Bombardier making planes at Downsview. If this means more massive subsidies, noise and pollution, and an ugly downtown, then so be it.
Although, as I said, I still feel that unions play a useful role in representing their employees to employers, in the future I will have a much less sympathetic view to their public statements or their efforts to influence policy outside of labour relations.