Usefully indispensable?

So with Canada Post’s workers heading back to work next week, regardless of your feelings towards unionized labour, I think a little context is required.

But before I get into it I should state I’m not going to provide, nor am I looking for, commentary concerning either the deal the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (C.U.P.W.) were after or the House of Commons legislation forcing them back to work. Honestly I haven’t been following either side closely enough to provide any sort of informed insight.

I am, however, ready to cite two recent news stories that appeared in the media recently where union’s, on the one hand, proved useful (read: indispensable) to an individual seeking justice. But on the other proved indispensable (read: useful) for a corporation resisting their worker’s their right to organize to temporarily dismiss grievances…

Remember back in May when, at the time, International Monetary Fund (IMF) head and French President hopeful, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was yanked (ironic?) off a departing flight for France and arrested for “assaulting and forcing sex on a housekeeper at a luxury hotel in New York”? Whether he’s guilty or not is irrelevant, at least towards the point I’m currently driving at.

Turns out one of the main reasons said “housekeeper” was able to level such charges against a figure as “prominent” as Strauss-Kahn was her membership in a union. Do yourself a favour, especially if you doubt the need for union’s anymore, and read AlterNet’s May 19th piece Accusing DSK of Sexual Assault Took Guts — But Union Protection Is Essential;

There’s a reason most rapes go unreported. But there was one thing that housekeeper knew could not be done to her for reporting her account, observes a colleague in the labor movement: she could not be fired for having done so, because of the contract between her union, the New York Hotel Trades Council, and the Sofitel Hotel at which she works…

And if you read the AlterNet story, I urge you to take it one step further and read the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives piece How Unions Protect Our Human Rights;

It is generally believed that employers don’t like unions because they raise wages and improve benefits and working conditions. However, experience in the USA since the Second World War and in Canada in recent decades suggests that the decisive motivating force in employers’ animosity to unions is that they lose the right to treat employees in an arbitrary fashion. Unions empower workers to protect themselves from abuse (unfair dismissal, discrimination, etc.) by employers and, as in this case, sexual assaults by powerful patrons of hotels. And so businesses, and many governments over-friendly to businesses, work to undermine unions…

And it’s when employer’s such as Wal-Mart, say, refuse to allow their worker’s to organize issues such as discrimination, for instance, most definitely come to be rather significant problems. Take last weeks U.S. supreme Court decision to decertify the largest class action lawsuit ever launched in history — see the Democracy Now! coverage of the case just this past Tuesday.

Not 1, not 10, not 100, not 1000, not 10 000, not 100 000, not even 1 000 000, but 1.5 million separate women, not only felt discriminated against, but joined forces in a class to sue Wal-Mart over “allegedly [being] paid less and promoted less often than their male counterparts”. Try as hard as many a piece of shit have to dismiss it, but just as the numbers would suggest, it’s reprehensible.

The class was dismissed, sure, and Wal-Mart is claiming victory, but I fail to see exactly how anyone, a corporation included, can claim to have won anything when 1.5 million of it’s own employee’s feel they have been actively treated unfairly. It just doesn’t any make sense. If a union had been present this would have never happened.

Sure Wal-Mart would be less rich, but people, people who work for them at least, would be better off. And happier. Cos they would have been treated better. But instead we now have potentially 1.5 million separate lawsuits being waged against Wal-Mart — only the class was dismissed, the validity or invalidity of a single case have yet to be determined (that’s right, they haven’t won shit!). Tying up Wal-Mart, it’s lawyers and their litigant’s in court for years, (read: decades), to come. Is it worth it? Forget I asked, it obviously is. And, yes, it’s still most certainly a problem.

All that said I understand the complaints that are often directed toward union’s, complaints where certain workers take advantage of their protection and use that status to exploit their employer. I get it. But I also think it’s terribly unfair to generalize all organized workers and paint them with the same brush. Sure, if you give people and inch they’ll take a mile. Some people will. Not all do.

There are reasons the people who came before us fought and, in some cases, died for the rights we so callously take for granted. But, make no mistake, it goes both ways. If you give employers an inch they’ll take a mile. Again, some employers do — I’m looking straight at you Wal-Mart. But not all will. Any assertion claiming all employers are looking to exploit their workforces would be just as unfair.

My point is it seems increasingly obvious we’re going to witness first hand why we needed union’s in the first place. And, until that day comes, I will support any worker to exercize their right to negotiate for what they think they deserve…