Bullying workers in the attack on labour

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Now that we've discarded our garbage workers by the side of the road, I guess we can all feel better.

The lime green private garbage trucks rolling through the western half of the city allow us to send a powerful message to all public sector workers: in these tough economic times, don't expect to enjoy niceties like job security.

Mayor Rob Ford's determination to privatize Toronto's garbage service -- even though the real savings are likely to be minimal -- suggests the actual goal isn't saving the public money, but attacking unions.

This would certainly fit with the anti-union ferocity on display since the Harper government won its majority last year, and the McGuinty government's apparent keenness for a showdown with teachers and college faculty.

Mayor Ford and his sidekick brother Doug like to denigrate "jobs for life." As Doug put it: "We're going to target 'jobs for life' whenever we can, because nobody should have a job for life."

Hold on there, Ford brothers. Why such venom at the notion of a "job for life"?

Don't we want to encourage people to work all their lives? That used to be considered part of the work ethic. It's not as if anyone is seeking "welfare for life."

Employees can always be fired for just cause. The point of job security -- a key right won by unions -- is to give employees security against arbitrary firing.

But removing that sort of security -- leaving workers fearful and therefore malleable to the demands of their employers -- has been a central aim of the right and segments of the business community.

Perhaps the attack on unions isn't surprising, given the ongoing recession caused by the 2008 financial crash. Better to turn the 99 per cent against each other -- union against non-union, private sector against public sector -- rather than allow that anger to boil up against the 1 per cent.

It's reminiscent of the tale about the capitalist and the worker who order a pizza together. When the pizza arrives, the capitalist reaches in and helps himself to eleven of the twelve slices, then whispers in the ear of the worker: "Watch out for that union guy over there. He's got his eye on your slice."

As long as the right can keep workers envious and suspicious of each other, the focus won't be on those at the top, where the benefits have actually gone. As Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney noted last week, corporations are sitting on $500 billion in cash, reflecting the growing share of business revenue in recent years that has gone to profits, not wages.

(Labour's share of Canada's national income has fallen from 65 to 60 per cent since 1990, partly because of policies like privatization and deregulation, the OECD's Employment Outlook reported last month.)

And so a photo of a napping TTC collector was used in 2010 for an Internet campaign against unionized workers. After the humiliating public attacks, the worker, who had a flawless 29-year TTC record (including saving the life of a disabled man), took a medical leave and died 10 months later.

Not deterred, the Toronto Sun posted a photo of another napping TTC collector last April. Gotcha!

But while public sector workers are bullied these days, business leaders are treated as semi-gods.

Since the Conservatives took power, business leaders have enjoyed a two-day private retreat with the finance minister each summer, just in case they hadn't already managed to communicate their views to him at other private functions, not to mention through the pages of the newspapers they own.

The business leaders used their retreat last summer to urge Jim Flaherty to adopt measures to reduce workers' pay and to implement U.S.-style right-to-work laws aimed at limiting union power, according to government documents reported in the Globe and Mail earlier this month.

So while the economy remains stalled with business leaders declining to invest their surplus $500 billion, we're encouraged to vent our anger by firing city garbage workers and making sure we catch every one of those napping TTC collectors.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet and The Trouble With Billionaires. This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Anthony Easton/Flickr

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