Swallow self-respect? Er, no thanks

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There's an excuse-me quality to the Toronto civic employees' strike. "We knew it was not going to be a popular strike," said union leader Ann Dembinski. She didn't request support, just "for the public to be understanding." Further down the (picket) line, it's the same. "We're not asking for anything. We just want to keep what we've got," said a district captain.

That's modest enough, even apologetic. They don't want to suffer a pay increment far below the 3 per cent that Toronto police, firefighters and transit workers got recently. They don't want to give back the right to accumulate sick-leave benefits by coming to work assiduously, a benefit common across the country. They probably knew, before Globe columnist Marcus Gee told them, that the world "has entered an era of austerity." They just don't want to be forced to swallow human excrement -- a technical term in labour relations.

Some strike issues are not primarily economic. You have to look at yourself in the mirror, and at your kids, and it's harder to do with a mouthful of the stuff. It can happen to anyone. Recently, one employer after another has tried to redefine pension clauses from the guarantee of "defined benefits" to the RSP-style crapshoot of "defined contribution." Mostly, they've succeeded.

There are other non-economic factors, such as hypocrisy. Few things motivate people like the sight of it. The Toronto strikers may know that Sir Fred Goodwin banked millions of pounds in bonuses for wrecking the Royal Bank of Scotland and that Sarah Kramer got a $114,000 bonus plus $317,000 severance when she was pushed out the door at eHealth Ontario. Margaret Wente says the Toronto strikers want a (sick leave) bonus "just for showing up." But they've seen that, in sectors such as finance, you get far more not just for showing up but for botching things, losing billions and pulverizing the global economy.

It's true there's something odd about collective bargaining in the public sector. In the private sector, market forces impose a reality check, so that unions try not to bargain a company into bankruptcy. On the other hand, free trade and globalization have now so badly tilted market forces that companies impose their will just by threatening to move. Truck assemblers at Navistar in Chatham, Ont., for instance, face company contract demands that will basically destroy their lives and community. The alternative is a more direct version of the same: The plant just bolts.

In the public sector, it's different. Toronto can't shift its daycare and playground employment to Kentucky or Oaxaca. Public-sector workers, you could say, are the hedge-fund managers and bank presidents of the working class in that they get away with murder. Relatively speaking, of course. The most they really get away with is jaywalking, in comparison with the bankers.

But in most strikes, strong non-economic motives are also at work: moral, emotional, etc., and the latter often predominate. These can include hostility toward those whose garbage you regularly handle but who rarely show appreciation. Or, from the other side, columnists and talk-show callers who, for their own reasons, identify with the overdog.

There are normal considerations of fairness (as in, "that's not fair") that begin very young, when the smallest kids notice that the bigger ones usually get their way simply due to strength. And there's the widespread preference to go on strike rather than swallow human excrement.

Not everyone gets the choice. The cornered truck workers in Chatham told the company, in a piercing phrase: "We will not be exercising the right to strike." Toronto's civic workers still retain a margin for action, in the name of self-respect. Perhaps they felt they didn't have a right not to strike.

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