Friday, March 9, 2007

In Defence of Staff Unions: A Response to Eugene Plawiuk

Recently, Eugene Plawiuk blasted the unions representing the staff of CUPE National by referring to the workers as "bureaucrats" and "porkchoppers". Plawiuk's analysis is usually quite thoughtful, but in this instance, I think he missed his mark.

CUPE's staff unions have been engaging in workplace actions designed to avoid a labour dispute.
Plawiuk has no sympathy for the unions. Here's what he wrote on his blog:

These guys make an average $110,000 a year, have a paid car, get a great benefits package, have additional monies paid to them monthly as per diem's. They are permanent staff. They are the bureaucracy striking against themselves.

Plawiuk fails to mention that the potential strike is not about wages. It's about fighting concessions on pensions. How can CUPE argue in favour of pensions for its lowest paid members when it demands pension concessions from its own members?

I am sorry I am opposed to labour fakirs and porkchoppers, the guys who live off the backs of union members, being treated like other workers who go on strike. Back at the turn of last century labour organizers were paid a $1 a day. Often they supplemented their wages by also selling life and benefit insurance through fraternal orders. Today these striking bureaucrats are part of the business of business unions. Representing workers in the business of labour relations.

Why do people romanticize the good old days when people worked for a dollar? People who work for unions are workers, not bureaucrats. These workers unionize because because their employer (in this case CUPE) acts like an employer rather than a union. I remember when I used to work for a union, the President once sat me down and told me a long story about how he once worked as an organizer for months without pay for the good of the workers. The speech masked all sorts of labour relations contradictions in the union, not the least of which included huge disparities in pay between elected union officials and union staff.

There is only one union in Canada that actually has eliminated the idea of a
professional class of labour bureaucrats; that is CUPW. The Postal workers
elect their representatives at their national convention.
Being a CUPW rep
is not a permanent job , it is what is supposed to be, a member who works for
the members. Not a labour fakir bureaucrat who belongs to another union
within the union.

I think the CUPW model comes closest to meeting the ideals of union democracy, but I don't see how the CUPW example should lead us to oppose the struggle of CUPE staff unions who are fighting concessions. It is not the staff of the union that gets to decide which type of democratic structure the union will adopt - it is the members of the union who decide. I also take exception to Plawiuk's assertion that belonging to a union within a union is the stuff of business unionism. Some of Canada's biggest social unions (like CUPE) have unionized staff, and some of Canada's most renowned business unions (like CLAC) have non-union staff.

It is now up to the membership, the rank and file of CUPE to challenge the bureaucrats and their own bureaucracy to be reformed into a truly member run

It looks like thousands of rank-and-file CUPE members have already voiced their opinions - and they don't agree with Plawiuk or the President of CUPE National.

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