When it comes to unions, a careless disregard for the facts seems to affect some journalists like a disease.
Some activists in the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the largest federal public service union, got involved in the recent Quebec election. Here is the complete press release, which was issued from one PSAC region, announcing that a West Quebec-based political action committee had done an analysis of the local candidates. Please pay careful attention to the wording, since the anti-union mob would like you not to:
The Conseil régional d’action politique de l’Outaouais (C.R.A.P.O), political action committee of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) in the National Capital Region (NCR), today issued the results of an assessment of key Quebec election candidates in the Outaouais region. While the PSAC does not endorse particular candidates during elections, it does provide its membership a report card of candidates on the basis of their positions on workers’ and citizens’ rights, public services and unions.
On these issues, the parties ranked as follows:
1) Parti Québecois (PQ) 2) Québec Solidaire (QS) 3) Parti Libéral Québecois (PLQ) 4) Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ)
Both the PQ and the QS are supportive of workers’ rights, public services and unions. In contrast, the PLQ’s position, highlighted by its handling of the student tuition issue, including the passage of Bill-78, shows that its intentions are not compatible with the public sector interests of citizens, workers and unions. Meanwhile, the CAQ is placed last due to its plans for substantial public service layoffs.
“The PSAC believes that federal and provincial governments should be supportive of workers’ rights and committed to maintaining and enhancing quality public services that hard-working Canadians deserve,” said Larry Rousseau, Regional Executive Vice-President of PSAC-NCR. “We call on our members in the Outaouais to vote on election day and make their voices heard.”
In other words, some member activists measured local campaigns and platforms against union interests, values, and aspirations, published a ranking, and encouraged people to get out to vote.
There was no “endorsement” of party or candidate, but the issuing of an opinion by a small committee from one PSAC regional body, which rank and file members were free to adopt or ignore. Everything was completely open and democratic.
But when it comes to unions, a careless disregard for facts seems to affect journos like a disease. They fall back on their prejudices, cutting and pasting their ready-made anti-union copy in their sleep.
Take John Ivison’s latest effusion, particularly laughable because he so deftly undercuts his own position.
“With PQ endorsement, the federal PSAC union launches its membership off a cliff,” thunders the headline.
Ivison is beside himself. He notes that the PSAC activists involved “tend to put the sovereignty question to one side,” and sneers that this elephant in the room is too large to ignore. Then he proceeds to inform us that most Quebecers are ignoring it as well:
The PQ won an apparent minority in Tuesday’s provincial election, yet support for separation is rumbling along at historic lows. That’s because most Quebecers like speaking French and buying expensive consumer durables.
(Stephen Harper is, by the way, in complete agreement. Some cliff.)
Thus Ivison destroys his own argument, which can happen when you’re in an unreasoning rage, as he appears to be. A volley of silliness follows: How dare the union spend money on this sort of thing? “Reprehensible”! (What money? Issuing a press release? The actual activist labour involved is volunteer work, unremunerated.)
Ivison is also upset that the PSAC spent money on a plane to display a banner attacking Stephen Harper, while having no problem whatsoever with the RCMP grounding it. “Predictably, the union raised hell, claiming a breach of free speech,” he says.
“Claiming?” It was a heavy-handed exercise of state power against lawful, democratic dissent. But something about democracy seems to frighten Ivison.
Then we have this weathered old canard, trundled out yet again:
One of the big battles to come when Parliament resumes will be Conservative MP Russ Hiebert’s private members’ bill on union financial information, which would compel labour groups to reveal how they have spent their union dues.
“Compel?” Let me now, in the interest of full disclosure, reveal that I was once a PSAC executive vice-president, holding the multi-million-dollar finance portfolio for two terms. So here’s a primer for those who genuinely don’t know how the process works.
Every three years, the PSAC holds its Convention, which is the supreme governing body of the union. Union finances, and a budget for the following three years, are subjected to delegate scrutiny so withering that it can take up most of the time of Convention.
Before the proposed budget even gets to Convention, where it must be passed before it takes effect, it is placed before a finance committee, which spends days going over every nickel and dime. The leadership is held to strict account, and some of the skepticism expressed over the draft budget would easily rival anything Ivison and his anti-union pals could dream up.
The three-year budget, once it is passed by Convention with its rewrites and amendments, is widely circulated. The assembled media at Convention get copies. Every PSAC member can obtain one and check it out. There is nothing hidden at the end of this lengthy process. Expenditures, including monies for political action, are entirely transparent.
Russ Hiebert’s bill isn’t about transparency. It’s about harassment. Meanwhile, the government that Ivison serves isn’t, oddly enough, all that keen on transparency for itself. Again, though, for Ivison and other Harper foot soldiers, that seems to pose no problem.
Turning from this rabid partisan to a usually more sensible journalist, Chris Selley, we can see the same autonomic reflexes at work.
Selley talks of an alleged “decline” of public-sector unions before getting into specifics. Never mind the causes of strikes, the latter something no union undertakes unless sorely provoked, and which involves two parties, not one: Strikes cause inconvenience. OK, we get it, Chris: Unions shouldn’t strike.
(Let me note in parentheses that the only strikes ever supported by Canada’s corporate media and their squad of groupthinky reporters are in far-off lands – Poland, for example, during the Solidarność days. It is unwritten policy that all strikes in Canada, without exception, are wrong, and all union leaders are out of touch with the members who elected them. Hear the Word of the Board.)
But Selley is being more than a little sinuous. In his next breath, he criticizes the unions, not for militancy, but for “meekness.” And then, taking a third breath, he proceeds once again to attack them for militancy – the PSAC plane is mentioned (but, as with Ivison, the RCMP suppression of freedom of expression here doesn’t seem to bother him at all), and union support for the student protests in Quebec is criticized because they were allegedly “unpopular.” (Ex-premier Jean Charest, who staked all on suppressing the protests, is now licking his wounds. Gosh, what happened to his popularity?)
Had the unions opted not to support the students, of course, once again they would be accused of “meekness” – and in that highly hypothetical instance, I might find myself on Selley’s side. Where I would agree with him at present, though – or at least with one of his contradictory staked-out positions – is that the labour movement needs to do some hard strategic thinking if it is to prevail against hostile governments who hold most of the power cards. But that’s a commonplace observation, not a breaking revelation.
Unions have one of the only remaining institutionally democratic structures in Canada. Union leadership is far more accountable than the Harper government, held to much stricter standards, and able to move forward only with membership agreement – the latter, of course, being the union.
Members are just ordinary working people co-operating with other ordinary working people. The necessary political and structural changes needed to confront our sworn enemies effectively will take place only with their consent. But it’s precisely that democratic potential that scares the hell out of secretive governments, rigidly hierarchical and undemocratic corporations, and their media mouthpieces. Nothing new here at the National Post – let’s move along, brothers and sisters, and give them something to really make them squeal.