Saturday, 16 April 2011

UNIONS, AND ALL THAT

No one has said it better than Mikhail Gorbachev: "Communism is man exploiting man. Capitalism is the reverse." Exploitation has been rampant throughout history and remains today entrenched even in the so-called Lands of the Free. Unions, built to lessen inequality, became powerful but, as Lord John Acton in 1887 warned, "Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely." Sadly, unions like Canada Post, the railroads, and automotive have abused power. An ideal society is a two-way street: employees loyal to, and working hard for, employers who, in turn, appreciate and reward them commensurate with their accomplishments and the employer's ability to do so. So, what did I encounter with 3 major and 6 minor employers?


After various summer jobs that paid up to 20 cents an hour, I found in 1938, on graduating from high school with senior matriculation plus a year of commerce courses, a job with the Royal Bank of Canada with a starting salary of $400 a year in a town of 4,000 with 3 competing banks, each with a staff of about 7 men and one woman (the secretary). Room and board in private homes cost $7 per week. Pay raises averages $100 per year and you had to be making $1400 before allowed to marry so you would be about 28. Bank managers were paid about $3,000 per year. Their responsibilities included monitoting the staff for efficient performance of banking duties plus dress, deportment, and affiliation with local sports and social clubs to promote the bank as an important community asset. It was a safe and efficient banking system. No depositor lost a cent during the Great Depression. But, when employees in one large-city branch tried to form a union to achieve higher wages, bank officials moved in, locked out and fired the entire staff and moved in replacements.


I was making $850 a year when I enlisted in the RCAF is the summer of 1941. In an all-out war discipline was not as strict as feared and most of us were quite happy in the Service. The only mutiny I witnessed (crews refusing to bomb Germany in antiquated training aircraft) was settled amicably. By the time I was bombing Germany as an officer I was making $6.25 a day! This was double RAF pay so a wise government, to avoid friction, withheld half our pay for a nice post-war nest egg (for survivors). Our greatest pain was the nightly loss of so many cherished friends. A post-war RCAF career was most interesting but we found we were married to the Service. Families were secondary and wives endured a lot. Every two years we were expected to be proficient within days in a new job in a new location with no extra time allowed to hunt for family housing in a very tight market with no building during six war years while the population doubled. Twice we had to buy holes in the ground and wait two months for a house to be built. With provincial school systems that were superior to, and disdainful of all others, it was often a fight to get children accepted without dropping a grade. All five of our girls were born on the move. Numerous advanced courses and secondary (unpaid) duties also took time away from families. Today, this has been corrected with generous financial and time allowances.


Reaching the compulsory retirement age of 47 in 1966, I retired on a pension that was to remain at $5,000 for 14 years before indexing for inflation set in. My desire to be a teacher required anothe 4 years of university courses. I crammed 9 hours of classes into Mondays and the rest into evenings so that I could be available for part-time employment by a moving company. Unions disliked part-time non-union employees so dictated to the company when they could hire me for $2 an hour. Winning a teaching job in 1970 the pay was $5,000 annually from which a painful slice was taken by the union with which I became disillusioned. I objected to their considering as the enemy the unpaid school board that had to balance taxpayers with teacher demands for higher pay and reduced class size. I also disliked seniority rules that caused us to lose excellent teachers every time we had to downsize while keeping entrenched low-performing ones. Public relations were all-important, so pass rates remained high by lowering standards which some of us refused to do. Too many students came from broken homes, needing much more care than a school curriculum provides. I found teaching a full-time job, getting to know parents and home problems and being always available. I worked students hard, giving no multiple-choice tests (graded by machine) but all essays which kept me up late at night grading, yet I had no shortage of students seeking my classes. I quit the union when they went on strike in 1975 in the middle of a school year. Those of us who refused to desert our students made enemies of friends by crossing picket lines. Substantial pay raises, plus increased taxes, were later achieved but I loathed the methods used. Unions do serve good purposes but dues are too high, political ties too strong, and too many members serve the union rather than the employer and the public. Like climate change and over-population, the increasing gap between rich and poor is an explosive danger. We need the common sense to realize we are all in this together and that rewards and sacrifices need to be shared.

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