It’s public opinion, stupid

My Dad, a CAW local president for 25 years, told me that few things are as different as private sector and public sector unions. The former typically provides products while the latter almost always provides services. When a private sector union, like the CAW, goes on strike the effects are rarely immediate. Unless you really wanted to buy a car that week, you might not even notice. But when garbage piles up, daycares are closed, mail doesn’t show up or the buses don’t run…people notice and people react. Trends show us that in a public sector strike, the people side against the union and the city worker’s strike is no different.

An Angus Reid poll released today shows 76% of Torontonians are opposed to the strike. A more telling statistic is that 53% of citizens blame the union for causing the strike. This is great news for the city. As public pressure mounts against the union the city suddenly has new negotiating options, like back-to-work legislation; which 81% of those polled support.

The poll didn’t probe respondents understanding of the issues on the table and I think that’s telling as well. When the citizenry is inconvenienced, they aren’t particularly interested in the issues; they just want the inconvenience to end. To date, when in the grips of a labour action, public sector unions (and I’m pointing a finger directly at the TTC workers here) have fallen back on their oldest tactic…righteous indignation? A ridiculous notion that the average citizen would, without proper education or encouragement, sympathize with the union position solely because the union represents workers and workers fight the “man”. What this fails to recognize is that the overwhelming majority of working people are not represented by a union and as such their ability for empathize with unionized workers is virtually nonexistent. It gets worse when unions are seen to be fighting for perks, as opposed to jobs.

To turn this around, I think the union has to do the following things…and do them fast:

  1. First and foremost, they must stop preventing people from getting into the garbage transfer points. A strike is about withholding services, not about withholding services and then attempting to prevent the public from using the crappy alternative. How does the union expect to get people on their side when they’re being dicks?
  2. Second, abandon the time bank. It’s the perkiest of perks, a reward for simply coming to work. There’s no sympathy to be had in fighting for that, nor should there be.
  3. They must focus on the treatment of older workers as their main agenda. When the Local president wrote about that issue in the Star this morning, it was the first time I’d heard anything about it. Seniors are active lobbyists (i.e. they write angry letters to the editor) and they tend to look out for their own. Get them on your side, right away.
  4. They need to turn the public’s anger back on itself by recruiting a 3rd party to go on an anti-garbage campaign. People don’t like being faced with their own mess and this is a great time to divert attention away from striking workers by putting it on real environmental issues. Sure, it may sound like a cheap trick…but at least it recognizes that public opinion is fluid and can be diverted, if addressed properly.

Finally, and it’s too late in this case, but unions have to be willing to take one for the team every once in a while. That doesn’t mean giving in entirely, but it does mean making potential concessions public as soon as possible. Telling the public that you are going into a situation as the reasonable side and doing so before the city can put their position forward puts you in the power position. Allowing the city to cry poor first and use the economic crisis as their evidence has put the union so far behind the 8-ball that unless they dramatically chance their approach, they really haven’t a chance.

Step 1…accept that public opinion matters.

4 thoughts on “It’s public opinion, stupid

  1. While this is an excellent diagnosis of the situation, it should be recognized that public sector workers can also be taken advantage of using the logic that because they provide services to the public, they are at the mercy of public opinion. This has been especially the case in the US, where anti-union and anti-tax rhetoric have been combined to decimate public services at state and municipal levels. Ultimately though, the taxpayer winds up screwing themselves in these scenarios, as they are either left without services entirely, or forced to rely on shady private sector service providers who are even less answerable to constituents.

    I agree that in the current economic climate, the union should probably concede the time bank, but at the same time it should be remembered that the current economic situation is primarily the fault of bankers, traders and managers, not unions or sanitation workers. Sanitation is essential to the existence of modern cities, and it is not an easy job. People who provide this service should be appropriately compensated.

  2. This is the most concise summation of unions I’ve heard from a union supporter ever. There’s no union rhetoric and gilding of the Lilly. The title alone sums it up.

    I think your assessment of their inconveniencing people is poignant too. I’m staunch anti-union in %90 of things I do in life (I will concede a few situations where it’s necessary) But I think a work-to-rule would have been more in the unions interest here. It would get attention on their issues without seeming like stick-in-the-mud-money-grubbing-bastards. Public opinion isn’t the most important issue, it’s the only issue. Bad will lingers and piles up with each public strike.

    These days, as people loose jobs and get scaled back in the ones they get to keep, the unions can’t win, they just have to lay low, and as you said, take one for the team sometimes. The city might be broke by their own incompetence, but broke they are. You have to work in that reality instead of whining.

  3. Its one thing to abandon the sick-pay banking system from this new contract further. Its another thing to let the city renege on the over $100 million dollars in outstanding sick pay that they failed to put monies aside for -they have only a small fraction. That has nothing to do with recession, that’s plain and simple fraud.

    How much sympathy would you expect if I was calling my cell phone company and saying “Yeah I know I said I’d pay the $5 network access fee, and I signed a contract to that effect, but frankly I forgot to pay it for the last 5 years and while you nicely continued to offer me the service I want to renegotiate my contract and not pay the money I owe you or the fee from now on. Nor would anyone side with the city if there was $100 million taken from the retirement fund.

    The union is doing a crappy job stating their case to the public, and they absolutely HAVE TO stop hassling people trying to go to the dump -a polite picket handing out leaflets would be more effective.

    But the city simply can’t be allowed to renege on their previous deals, otherwise what’s to stop any employer from doing the same.

  4. This morning, while sitting at my computer desk, composing a letter, I was assulted with the wafting pungency of the household green bins.

    I suppose I was naive to think that the High Park raccoon entourage would help us deal with the pile up of rotting compost.

    Perhaps they are on strike too?

    I know garbage is only picked up once a week, but if it stinks now, imagine how it will smell next week?

    As a person who has happily built her own bubble, and is mostly content to within it’s shiny, irridescent womb, I can sympathize with frustrated workers, but at the end of the day, I’m having a house party on Saturday night, and I’d really like it to not stink.

    My point is, I will scan the Toronto Star online so I don’t seem like I live in a bubble when people ask me for my opinion; I will feel for the workers and hope they can be properly compensated for the work that they do; but at the end of the day, all I really care about is not having my long skirt pull garbage down the stairs behind me as I waft gracefully into the nearest subway station.

    Summer is for freckles and mojitos, not the putrid smell of rotting meat.

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