Pen & Ink caricature by Graeme MacKay – The Toronto Star, Wednesday February 28, 1996
Toronto Day of Action
(Story: Union and Harris repeat mistakes of the past, published: The Toronto Star, February 28, 1996) Can you believe or trust union leaders who have called a strike to save their members’ jobs right after having helped defeat a New Democrat premier who had tried to protect their members’ jobs by “Rae Days” that kept them all working by taking back a bit of their salaries?But can you either believe or trust a Premier who is making exactly the same blunder that his predecessor did when new in office?
For about the first half of his term, Bob Rae governed almost entirely on behalf of those who had put him there, organized labor and the various special interest groups. Later, Rae changed radically, although far too late to save him politically. His “Rae Days” were part of an attempt to deal with a budget deficit for which all Ontarians were – and still are – paying a ruinous price.
What Rae once did, Mike Harris is now doing.
Any yielding to union demands would be “appeasement, ” says Harris. Triumphantly, almost boastfully, Harris has declared that the strike – more exactly, its eventual, inevitable, defeat – will send out a signal to potential investors that Ontario now offers “a better business climate.”
Beyond question, the condition of the province’s business climate matters a great deal. So equally, though, does the state of social cohesion among all its citizens. By ignoring this factor, by trying to depict public servants as enemies of Ontario’s collective interests, Harris is fracturing the province exactly as Rae did initially.
It’s neither here nor that Harris is repeating Rae’s original miscalculation from a different social-economic perspective – the neo-conservative one that whatever may be good for corporations has to be good for everyone.
Although he’s not much given to reading, you’d have though that by now Harris would have taken note of the speeches of Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan – his economic ones, not his cultural ones – and have wondered why Buchanan should be soaring in the primaries at the same time as he himself is tumbling in the polls.
As for the union leaders, their calling of a strike on the basis of a modest 66 per cent vote and without having shown their members the government’s counter-offer to their own call for $1.5 billion in new payouts, confirms that they have learned nothing about contemporary reality.
That reality, for public workers as well as for all workers, is harsh and disagreeable. But it’s an unavoidable one, for at least the foreseeable future. All kinds of labels have been stuck on it, from Alvin Toffler’s “third wave” to “global post-capitalism.”
Perhaps the best comment about our present economic condition, most particularly so in the context of a strike by public workers to protect jobs that hundreds of thousands of others would dearly love to have, no matter with or without job security, is contained in American economic commentator Robert Samuelson’s recently published book, The Good Life And Its Discontents.
Samuelson’s theme is that we have entered the age of “the end of entitlements.”
It’s an excruciatingly painful change of life. Vast numbers of workers have had to accept downsizing and restructuring as the new norm. For many of the young, the new norm is unemployment (close to one in five), and after that an endless cycle of part-time jobs, short-term jobs, self-employment. For all, the new norm is shrinking social programs, longer queues for medical treatment, shrunken pensions.
We are all angry and stressed out by these different forms of a loss of entitlements, that is of the abrupt loss of all that we all once took for granted.
Among all workers, only the publicly paid ones still are behaving as if the past was the present. The past, that is, not just of tenure but of barricaded tenure. To lay off Ontario Hydro employees required severance settlements averaging $100,000 – the highest in Canadian industrial history. To lay off all but the most junior of provincial civil servant takes, typically, two years.
Ontarians simply can no longer afford these kinds of entitlements by the few. As Management Board Chair Dave Johnson has observed, “The deficit does not go on strike. The debt does not go on strike.”
One half of the way this strike will unfold thus will be determined by how and when union leaders at last learn to cope with reality.
The other half will be determined by how, and when, Harris learns from Rae that to govern is to govern for all.
At a guess, it’s going to take each side a long time to learn what their job is.
Richard Gwyn’s column normally appears Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. (Source: Toronto Star)