Garbage collection has always seemed to me a function that we, as members of society rather than private individuals, should be ready to pay a premium for. It is a dirty, undesirable, utterly necessary social activity. I call it social because having my own garbage collected will not meet my need; each of us needs our entire society’s garbage to be dealt with.

To get people to spend their work lives doing such unpleasant, valuable work seems worth paying well for. By the same token, you can argue that work people enjoy, like writing or bossing others around, ought to be paid less because of the satisfactions involved.

As for job security — the strike issue in Toronto — if there are people who want to do lousy, useful work like collecting garbage all their lives, you might just want to congratulate and encourage them. There are worse things than being threatened with having work you don’t want to do yourself done for you.

I know there are other ways of looking at it. You can try to reserve dirty or undesirable work for desperate people, like illegal or untrained immigrants or migrant labour, who will work for less.

Think of nannies and farm workers. Notice we are again speaking of key social functions: child care and food. It’s an odd way to deal with such areas. It also means that having a relatively egalitarian society with relatively satisfied people in it becomes something you try to avoid, to maintain a supply of hard-pressed workers.

Another way to handle such areas is to privatize and contract them out. This has been the privileged approach for twenty years, ever since huge corporations decided that the last frontier of big profits lay in areas of public service such as health, education and garbage.

Personally, I don’t see the appeal in having big companies make money out of providing me with services, but I guess tastes differ. Let me pause here since the big issue in the garbage mess is precisely privatization/contracting out, and not, as Mayor Mel Lastman and his toadies on council keep saying, Jobs for Life. (I don’t blame them for overusing the line since I assume they paid some legal or personal relations firm a lot for it.) Jobs for Life is nowhere on the table. If the city figures out how to cut jobs, the union and its members will take their lumps.

What they are asking for is that, after a lengthy term of service, jobs not be shifted to some private firm. This is far more limited, but it is the kind of thing unions bargains for, and I don’t find it deeply alien to my values.

It is striking, though, how many Torontonians seem resentful of it. You hear it often: I don’t have any job guarantees so why should they? — as if misery has a right to lots of company.

It’s a bitchy attitude, something most of us can identify with in the less pleasant parts of ourselves, and it builds on the insecurity people have been trained to live with since the Reagan-Thatcher years. What unions do seems to offend not just the rich but large numbers of ordinary working people.

It was not always thus. Unions once represented more broadly shared social values. I thought of this during the recent 50th birthday festivities for the Stratford Festival. Its founder, Tom Patterson, now eighty-two, once told me the festival was created for “one and only one reason,” and that was the great Stratford chicken pluckers’ strike of 1936, the sole time in Canadian history that tanks were used against workers.

The town became known as the Communist capital of Canada, he told me, in an era when revolution was in the air; its mayor even got his barber to make him look like Stalin. After the war, Tom and other boosters from Stratford’s business ranks decided to remake its image, so they started the Shakespeare stuff. I imagine no one mentioned it at the party.

We live in an era of renewed protest and dissent, based largely on a critique of profit-driven capitalist economics similar, in ways, to the mood of the 1930s. It’s impressive, for instance, how easily young anti-globalization activists talk about their “anti-capitalism.” They lack the apologetic tone that often accompanied such terms during the Cold War. No one is going to accuse them of being Soviet agents just because they criticize capitalism.

Recent scandals around Enron and others have added to the sense of distrust for capitalism. Yet this critique does not lead to an attachment to the labour movement, as it did in the 1930s and at other times. At the moment, we seem to live in an odd, intriguing era during which the popular mood manages to be both anti-capitalist and anti-labour.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.