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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.