• authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Jan 12, 2002

The Inevitable End of an Era

"You begin to conform your being to get the privilege of conformity. You soon come to believe what you're saying because it's useful to believe it, and then you've internalized the system of indoctrination and distortion and deception, and then you're a willing member of the privileged elites that control thought and indoctrination. That happens all the time, all the way to the top. It's a very rare person, almost to the point of non-existence, who can tolerate what's called "cognitive dissonance" -- saying one thing and believing another. You start saying certain things because it's necessary to say them, and pretty soon you believe them because you just have to." - Noam Chomsky

What Noam is talking about is what a lot of us call "believing your own bullshit" and he's telling us why people do it: it pays. You do it because it makes a lot of sense to do it - you get stuff, you get status, you get to be a somebody. It feels good and you like it. The more you of it you get, the more you want. Besides, it's hard to say one thing and believe another - what he calls "cognitive dissonance thing" - for any length of time. Not many people can do it. But when they do, some really strange things happen.

We don't have kings anymore - it's for a reason:

Who would ever have thought that it would come to this? After decades of ruling like kings and princes, some biz union leaders don't know what's hitting them. Their secret deals are being exposed, their wheeling, dealing and self-serving antics are being hung out for all to see, their strategies analyzed and criticized, their motives questioned, their followers subject to relentless ridicule - in front of the whole human race. Oh what's a biz unionist to do? "Well, don't just stand there gawkin' at that damned web site people, call my lawyer, call my spin doctor, call my mama! This is not what I bargained for. Well, I haven't bargained much for a long time but, aw shit, I'm talking like those MFD bastards on the Internet! Call my therapist!".

We don't doubt that what we're doing here at MFD is painful for the biz union guys. It's taken them by surprise and they're having trouble trying to understand it. That's to be expected. One of the biggest problems with being a king is that you just don't take any opposition seriously until it's biting you on the ass and then it's usually too late. There are centuries of history to back this up. Look at the downfall of any kingdom, fiefdom or autocratic state and you'll find the same thing. There are certain problems that go along with being a king and it's hard to avoid them. They're occupational hazards, so to speak:

  1. You believe that you're right, all the time.
  2. You believe that everyone wants to be like you and is motivated by the same things as you.
  3. You believe that outside the walls of your kingdom, all is well. (This is because you surround yourself with yes-men who will always tell you that, outside the walls of your kingdom).

These beliefs are common among despotic rulers - well-meaning ones and evil ones alike. Whether you are running a kingdom or a union, if you think you know what's best for the people, you will come to harbor these beliefs and they will, eventually, be the end of you.

So, if you are a despotic union leader who is drawing heat for being just that, you can take comfort in this: What is happening to you now has been coming for a long time. It's inevitable that it would happen and that it would happen this way. The inevitability is rooted in the "labour relations system" itself and that is the greatest of ironies for it is "the system" that has allowed the undemocratic biz unions to thrive and prosper.

The system and what it's about:

When we talk about the LR System were are referring to the various laws and government agencies that regulate labour-management relations in Canada. The conventional wisdom tells us that system is a good thing. It gives us rights - like the right to organize and the right to bargain collectively - and that it protects us from people who seek to interfere with our rights. It gives us Labour Boards where we can go if our employers interfere with our rights to organize and bargain collectively and arbitrators to whom we can turn if we are our collective agreements are not honored. The conventional wisdom is that the system gives us workplace justice but that's bullshit. The LR System is not about justice in the workplace and was never intended to be. The system exists to maintain order in the workplace - by keeping workers in line.

A brief history of the system (skip this if you already know it or don't care):

The system was introduced in Canada in the 1940's when the Industrial Relations Disputes Investigation Act (IRDIA) was implemented. The IRDIA gave unions the right to recognition and required employers to bargain once a union was recognized. Organizing became much easier and, in the decades that followed, unions organized millions of workers. The legislation came with a big string attached however: Strikes during the term of a collective agreement were prohibited. Disputes during the term of a contract were to be taken to binding arbitration - a legal process.

It was this element of the IRDIA that brought about a big shift in the internal culture of unions. Thousands of staff reps were hired to ensure compliance with collective agreements and to advise and counsel members as to their legal rights. The reps were a boon to biz union leaders who were anxious to control a not-always-satisfied membership. Although officially they existed to provide service, they were increasingly relied upon to keep a lid on things at the local level.

The new legislation gave significant rights to unions and placed major obligations on employers and gave union members... a bone: the right to fair representation and to periodically see a financial statement. What was meant by fair representation or how detailed a financial statement needed to be were questions the law never addressed. Members had the right to decertify their union and join another one if they wished, but this could only take place during a narrow window of opportunity at the conclusion of a collective agreement. The unions quickly developed methods to deal with members wishing to do so, some legal and some not. On a practical level, union members had no rights at all in their relationship with their unions. They could be neglected, poorly represented, bullied, lied to, bought, traded and sold, whatever suited their unions. There was no requirement that unions govern themselves democratically. The conventional wisdom was that unions were democratic organizations by their very nature and dissatisfied members would toss out unresponsive leaders. An alternative view was that unions didn't need to be democratic at all. Workers needed leadership - they needed tough, strong guys who were not afraid to make decisions, even unpopular decisions. But it didn't really matter. The legislation wasn't intended to give workers a whole bunch of rights. It was about controlling their growing militancy. Their unions would now join with the employers in putting a lid on that.

By the 1950's, the federal government spun off responsibility for labour relations (except for a few employers) to the provinces. Labour relations acts were passed in the provincial legislatures and LRB's were set up to administer the new laws. Across the country, it was decided that grievances - complaints arising under collective agreements - would be resolved by arbitration. Arbitration would become a private matter between unions and employers who would retain and pay for private "judges" to adjudicate their grievances.

The system at its finest

In theory, arbitration was supposed to be a fair and fast way of resolving labour disputes. Representatives of management and labour would put their cases before a knowledgeable third party (the arbitrator) who would judiciously hear both sides and issue a legally binding ruling. Arbitrators would function much like judges but there was one major difference: labour arbitrators were unregulated, fee-for-service practitioners who would be selected and paid for by both sides. In order to successfully ply their trade, they had to please the two institutional parties - employers and unions.

The system has evolved so as to meet the needs of the two "institutional parties". It gives employers the right to expect loyalty, obedience and compliance from their workers. It gives unions the right to do pretty much what they want to their members. If a union wants quiet, obedient members, that's fine with the system. In fact, order is best kept when employers and unions work together to keep the workers quiet. . The system is particularly harsh on workplace rebels and reformers.

The system guys - the arbitrators, LRB officials and mediators - work hard for the institutional parties. At the LRB's nothing gets tossed out as quickly as a DRF complaint. Arbitrators and mediators dispense "rough justice" to members who just can't quite get the obedience thing down pat. ("Rough justice" is a term used to refer to mediation techniques that border on bullying employed to get members to withdraw grievances or sign off on settlements they don't really like.) Mediation-arbitration, a form of alternative dispute resolution that's become very popular in recent year, actually allows the same system guy two kicks at a member. First, he can put on his mediation hat and dispense a little rough justice. If that doesn't work, he can put on his arbitrator's hat and issue a ruling. His ruling can't be appealed, so it works really well.

If you are a member with a grievance, the system guys have the ultimate power to make you or break you. They can work with your employer and your union to make a deal and then shove that deal down your throat. As far as the system is concerned, there's nothing wrong with that.

The system has worked wonders for the biz unions and the employers. It gives both the ability to control workers and, with the legislators and the government agencies on side, it's almost flameproof. How can it be then, that the system is collapsing?

The inevitable part:

The whole system is founded on one very important thing: That the workers never get wise to what's really going on or what they can do about it. As long as they keep believing that the biz union is there to protect them and that the system guys are harsh but fair, everything will be just fine. It's not all that easy for the workers to get wise either. Most of the cozy-action happens out of their line of sight and everybody who is a player in the system has their own reasons keep quiet. Union guys believe the union boss knows best. Company guys aren't supposed to care about the workers. From the system guys' perspective, the working stiffs don't have any rights so there's no need to be concerned about them. Everybody has a solid reason to keep the Power Source in the dark. But the Power Source is getting wise and very soon will see the whole shabby picture. How can this be?

A whole bunch of things have happened that have made this inevitable. Apart from the indomitable will of oppressed people to be free, changes in our society and subtle but important shifts in our values are causing an increasing number of "system insiders" (union, company and government people) to reevaluate their role in the system and ask the fundamental question: What have I done and what will be the footprint I leave on this earth? Some of us were never fully convinced of the goodness of the system and some of us that were, have come to the realization that the system stinks. It is antiquated, inadequate and built on assumptions about people and work that are wrong. It hurts a lot of people and it needs to change. Some of us have reached out to the Power Source and have told them what we know about it. You can expect more of this. In talking to each other we are finding that we all want the same thing: Workplaces and workplace relations that fit the 21st century. There are a lot of us here from many different sides of the system now. The Internet paved the way for us to meet. It made it inevitable. The rest will be history - so there.

As we close off this week, we want to welcome to our site the members of UFCW Local 1000a at the Loblaws Maplegrove warehouse in Cambridge, Ontario. They appeared on our site this week with a story that needs to be told and understood. It seems to be all too common among the retail food industry warehousing operations. They are examining their representation options and we hope they keep us posted on what develops.

Welcome also to the 1000a machine - we can't see you but we can smell your presence. You are undoubtedly dismayed by all the attention you're getting - and there will be more. We would of course be pleased to hear your side of the story so feel free to send it on over. But please, address the issues. Don't give us this because it sounds an awful lot like this. We know you can do better Kevin and we're going to put a lot of heat on you to show us. Unlike most of the local pres's within the Canadian UFCW, you're one of the few that didn't start off as a Cliff Evans clone. With that great big local of yours, you've got Loblaws over a barrel. We want to see you use that leverage to your members' advantage. You could do some good things for service industry workers - and lead the cause of democratization within the UFCW.

Change or get out of the way - UFCW, International President, Doug Dority. See, even he knows it's inevitable.

Check back with us this week. We're going to have more on Local 1000a, more about the UA and more on in our new feature on Local 777.

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