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Deconstructing the unionbot frame

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When Electro-Motive/Caterpillar locked out workers at its London, Ont. plant on January 1, telling them to take a 50 per cent pay cut or they would close shop, so began 2012, the year the middle-class Canadian job came under heavy fire.

No one eliminates decent paying work and replaces it with low-wage jobs without a supportive narrative to smooth the way. The frame in place today focuses on powerful "union leaders" -- villanized as "union bosses," "the oppressors ... responsible for having forced labour to be exported."

The newspapers, who long ago replaced labour reporters with business reporters, warn of the "co-ordinated attack on unions" and note that the union movement is getting "militant." Throughout the mainstream media, the common narrative reveals that "union-busting" is accepted as legitimate activity because "unions have too much power."

Essentially, the history books will reveal the narrative of 2012 as the year of the unionbot. It reads like a science fiction plot: an immutable, greedy beast that bears no human resemblance to actual workers invades Planet Earth and therefore has to slayed like a dragon.

The history books will describe how multinational corporations such as Caterpillar conscripted governments to serve with them on the battlefront, to dismantle the unionbot.

History will show how governments threatened to lock out and fire their own public sector union (the reference is always to the "union," never actual people) because "nobody should have a job for life," banish the thought.

History will show how governments gave wealthy corporations millions in tax cuts without a single string attached to save a job or even a plant. And, when the company cut and ran because the workers refused to capitulate to a 50 per cent slash in their pay, history will show senior levels of government had no harsh words for the behaviour of the company, because it was perfectly understood that this is how one dismantles a unionbot.

Some humans will be recorded in the annals of time as having cheered on the unionbot slayers as though it was nothing but great sport, like this online newspaper comment: "It is great news, every action that is aimed to destroy and punish unions is beneficial to everyone except union and its members."

Or like this snippet from a tirade of an email I received after writing about Electro-Motive/Caterpillar's tactics last week: "Good riddance to another union, overpaid in this global workplace. ... good bye union and good riddance to the union thuggery and waste. Unions are dying and so they should, the death of them is too slow, put them out of their misery."

History will record the judgment against the unionbot was unspeakably harsh in 2012.

Of course, humans have every opportunity to change history before it is written in stone.

Unions have become a dirty word in Canada thanks in large part to the dehumanizing narrative that surrounds the word: We love free markets but attack unions. We get rid of unions, not people working in jobs. We revere the CEO (he creates jobs) but we castigate the union president (he kills jobs). We characterize the union president as a boss rather than as a leader of a social movement representing real working people who, alone, would be powerless to secure wage gains, benefits, time off, sick leave.

In the mainstream media, we learn of union activities mainly through the lens of a strike, written as though it's simply a matter of individual greed and too much power. The workers who make the widgets, who staff the factory floor, who offer the service we counted on being there, who miss the kids' hockey games because they had to work a double shift -- they receive no credit for the profits of their companies, for the health of a local economy.

The cult of the CEO is a star feature of the unionbot frame. It distracts us from the actual work and its true value.

Even when unions try to avert a strike by offering a three-year wage freeze (in this case, the City of Toronto workers), the unionbot frame considers this the crime: They just want to save their jobs.

Having given up on the notion of the socially responsible employer and the idea of regular pay raises to keep up with the cost of living, benefits, pensions, and even a modicum of job security in such a volatile globalized economy, Canadians run the risk of handing over the middle-class dream on a slightly tarnished silver platter.

And that is the scarring effect of the unionbot frame. On the surface, the frame makes no rational sense. But it works because it preys upon our deepest fears and, also, because the frame is dehumanizing. It holds within it no human narrative other than greed and self-interest. We don't talk about the men, women, husbands, wives, lovers, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends and neighbours who are simply trying to earn a decent living in an era when the wealth of our country indicates we can afford that little dream.

Instead, we depersonalize the situation. We talk about what "unions" have that we don't. And, rather than saying, let's join in a movement to secure that for everyone, the narrative grows divisive and toxic: Let's take it away from them before we lose everything. Dismantle the unionbot.

Fear does that.

We progressives who believe in the potential of labour as a meaningful movement often unwittingly reinforce the divisiveness of the unionbot frame. When we hear people cheer the attack on unions, we call them "union haters" and "union busters," which only reinforces the pitting of worker against worker rather than focusing on our common cause.

When we descend into "union hater" mudslinging, we unwittingly aid in dehumanizing the situation, as though work has nothing to do with honest-to-goodness real people seeking a fair deal. It's what's getting lost in the unionbot frame, the humanity of it all.

And, with the loss of our own humanity, we take three steps closer to the 19th century of working conditions the labour movement was invented to confront in the first place.

This was initially posted on www.framedincanada.com.

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