Monday, December 19, 2005

Unions - Part 2

We know that unions sprang from justified dissatisfaction.  Extreme measures mounted against extreme conditions. Lousy and abusive management created it’s own worst enemy.  Unions were so effective that nowadays they are a routine vehicle of negotiation for real abuses, and a weapon for imagined abuses.

Imagined abuses fall into the vengeance category.  When all else has been fixed, what’s left is psychological warfare for it’s own sake.  This is where the concept of a legitimate union breaks down.  This is also why unions are hardly, if ever, dissolved.  Just-in-case.

The flip side is much harder to deal with.  Once a union is set and is the be-all-end-all representative of the working mass, management has the onus to wash its hands of all things fair, all things equitable and certainly all things future.  

Management is responsible for the workings of the company and the Union is then responsible for the workers.

That’s the theory. There are many different incarnations to this, in fact the best managers will be able to manage the company, the workers and the union day in and day out. But the basic equation remains the same.  What toll this takes on the people, managers and workers alike, is for another blog entry.

If the union cares for its members, then it should plan ahead for future members.  In any given strike, this is what is at stake.  The condition of future generations, within the organisation, is the only real imperative.

The current striker will always lose.  Always.

This is seldom understood by the strikers, but is nevertheless altruistic.  If they stay long enough within the organisation, they might, someday, recoup the loss imposed by the strike.  The odds are very good, however, that they will be on strike again at some point, as management is slow to change, if it ever comes.

The worst offenders are probably government ministries.  There is no real pressure to change in management of ministries since laws are passed to control the work force.  A luxury that privately owned corporations do not have.  If pressure tactics against an enterprise goes on long enough or is harsh enough, the company will falter, declare bankruptcy and go under.  No so the government.  

In fact, government will routinely lapse public servant contracts, out of general principle.  No matter which party is in power, no matter which minister.  So it takes a very aggressive and very dangerous union to bring the government to the negotiating table.  My friends and acquaintances in public jobs have all seen this happen to them.  Contracts lapse for years on end.

Which brings me to my latest observations on a union that is close to my heart.

The nurses of Quebec, as is the case elsewhere I am sure, were once a religious congregation.  Selfless and poor, the sisterhood took care of the sick, the feeble and the elderly.  This was a calling.  This was a ripe situation for abuse if I ever saw one.  

When the government took over health care, it was a no-brainer.  Keep the poor sisters poor and we can make one hell of a business case.  The health care system was cheap and easy to run.  Doctors, with their own already powerful union, could be trusted to run it all to the benefit of the patients, and their own financial gain, but mostly keep the sisters under control.

The sisters remained poor and they remained selfless.  Their devotion to the cause would create an impasse for professional nurses for decades to come.  Indeed they would be the lowest form of life in the health-care system, just above nosocomial virus. Oh wait, the SARS virus blitz received more money than nurses ever will. Hmm.

We have a two-pronged skewer situation in this case.  On one hand, the government sees nursing services as cheap labour and plans to improve the situation not at all.  Really, why should they? Then we have the doctors, taught this way no less, to consider the nurse-sister as the devoted assistant.  These sisters, who look up to doctors, are worthy of contempt from their demi-gods.  They are certainly not viewed as fellow professionals.

Selflessness is this odd quality that is very much in demand, very much appreciated by the receiver, but held in contempt by the business.  So the stage is set.

My wife is a nurse and so was her mother back in the day.  My mother-in-law has been retired for some 20 years now.  She was in nursing school at the time of the sisterhood. She was impregnated with all selflessness and doctor-adoring notions running rampant at the time.  Doctors as a group encouraged this of course, as if the male to female hierarchy of the time wasn’t enough.

In the summer of 1999 the Quebec nurses went on strike, my wife among them.  They were originally fighting for better working conditions for themselves, and for their patients.   As anyone who has used the health-care system knows, the working condition in which the nurses operate directly impacts the patient.

Furthermore they had been without contract conditions for over a year if memory serves, and their salary had been frozen for the past 10 years.  Not even cost-of living adjustments were made.  

The strike was branded as illegal all over the media.  Illegal strike indeed.  The only thing that made it illegal was the lack of an official-in-writing two-week’s notice.  Never mind that the contract had expired over a year earlier.  

Eventually financial reality set in.  Between putting food on the table and slave labour, food will win out.  And this is what happened.  The nurses were no longer able to sustain extreme measures and settled for meagre salary increase, and none of the work condition improvements.  Nurses were still hit with massive government sanctions.  In the end, the government indirectly made tens of millions in withheld salaries, more than enough to compensate for the settlement.  

The government had won, again, narrowly dodging a bullet.  Unconscionable antiunion laws and some 350,000 public sector workers poised for civil disobedience were hanging in the balance.  The government had successfully broken the 47,500-nurse spearhead.

Some will even say that the FIIQ – Fédération des Infirmières & Infimiers du Québec, betrayed their members in back-door shenanigans with the Parti-Québécois.  There is clear evidence to support this.  Although I’m not sure it was so much politicking as lack of leadership guts.  Nurses are caring at heart.  Lovers, not fighters, as it were.  Right public support, right issue, wrong spear.

My mother in law was dead-set against the strike from the get go.  She fondly recalls her time working in hospital.  She really does have the calling to her core and the typical unhealthy adulation for doctors.  She loved nursing, but her career was cut short by illness and had to retire early.

And when a strike came during her tenure, she refused to strike.  She even applied the screws to her daughter to be a strikebreaker this time around.  “How dare she strike and leave the patients wanting?  How could she?”  Oddly enough, essential-services law dictates more nurses on station than are even available.  So technically, when any nurse goes on vacation, essential services are not assured!  Patients were not left wanting, not any more, nor less, than at any other time.  Non-essential surgeries were the hammer, never patient care.

“We’d pulled together! I loved my co-workers! I loved my job…” Yes, she did.  And so does my wife, to this day.

I begin to see the essence of the current problems.  It wasn’t the government, nor the doctors, I accused above.  No indeed. It was those nurses who never gave a thought for future generations.  Self and less means you condemn all those that follow you to the same fate.  Had it not been for a select few forward-looking professionals, nurses would still be the adoring sisters of the poor.  Not that there is anything wrong with this, it’s simply no longer tenable in this day and age.

This is why, altruistic though it may be, the imperative of the union is to look out for the future.


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