Around about Labour Day I usually find myself humming a few good old union songs. Songs like “There once was a union maid,” “Joe Hill,” “There is power in the union,” and of course, “Solidarity Forever.” If there are enough people around I even sing out loud.
So here’s a question: “Why are there so many great songs that celebrate workers and unions, but none that celebrate managers and owners?”
I think the answer is pretty clear. Unions have always been about people: How we work together, how we live together, how we help each other get through the tough times, and how we have fun when the work’s all done. (Think of Stompin’ Tom Connors and “Sudbury Saturday Night.”)
Managing and owning, on the other hand, are sometimes about people, but usually that means people as commodities. Who else but a manager would dream up a term like “Human Resources”?
Right now the world is in a pretty big mess, and I can tell you who’s responsible. It’s not the workers. It’s the managers and owners.
Money managers on Wall Street and Bay Street drove the economy into the ditch last year. But they’re not the ones paying the price. Not really.
Over 50 million workers have lost their jobs as a result of the current worldwide recession, but in most countries the response has been to throw rescue money at the top managers who caused the problem in the first place. If the recession is ending right now, it’s mostly because managers – and the owners they serve – are back making money again. But most workers aren’t so sure the worst is really over.
Post-recession, governments around the world, across Canada and right here in Ontario now face the prospect of massive budget deficits. Over the next few years, the way governments address those deficits will be the central problem facing workers and their unions everywhere. Public sector workers like us have a lot at stake, and so do the people who depend on the services we provide.
It will be a global tragedy if we look back on this recession as a time when corporate managers tightened the screws on working people everywhere by cutting or selling off public services and turning more and more jobs into part-time, temporary jobs with no benefits and low wages.
I’d much rather look back on this as a time when workers said “Enough is enough” and raised their voices in favour of economic and political change that puts people first, not profits.
Another world is possible. In Sweden, every worker has a sick leave plan. In Ireland, tuition is free for all post-secondary education. In Denmark, the child poverty rate is just two per cent (not our shameful rate of 17 per cent).
These countries can do this because at some point, their workers – the people – made their managers and owners accountable. Those workers didn’t believe what they were told when the bosses said good jobs for workers and taxes to pay for public services were a drag on the economy.
Those workers stood up, they stood together, and they made their voices heard.
In these strange and difficult times, labour’s voice has never mattered more. Let’s not be afraid to sing.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas