Addicted to novelty since 2001

Step into the 21st Century

I’m generally opposed to unions in the West. They seem more meritous in some industries (nursing, for example) than others (teaching and forestry), but generally they’re ridiculous 19th century institutions. I know something of what I speak because I’ve been in a union. Two, actually–I worked for one at UVic for a bit I think.

I remember one particularly illustrative experience working for the Rec Centre. I wanted to undertake some work above and beyond the call of my position–admin assistant. It was some magical geekery I was going to do to improve tennis bookings, I think. Despite the fact that everyone agreed that it was a good idea, they wouldn’t let me do it because it wasn’t in my job description. Everyone has a story like this, about how unions discourage innovation and reward mediocrity.

In Western Canada, we’re always hearing about the sufferings of forestry industry workers. I recently heard on the radio that the average forestry worker makes CAN $50,000 a year. Those doing the most elite, dangerous work can earn over CAN $100,000. That kind of money goes a long way in small towns. And I’m supposed to feel sorry for these guys?

There’s currently an ‘essential services’ job action for BC Ferries, which limits the number of ferries going to Vancouver Island. Not only does this lick abstractly, but I’m heading to the island this weekend. We’re fortunate to be able to consider the alternative of flying, or we might spend half of Friday at Horseshoe Bay, waiting for the union to permit us to use a public service.

I went looking for the average wages of BC Ferry employees, but couldn’t find any. In fact, I went to the BC Ferry and Marine Workers site. They seem to have intentionally crippled their site. Or, if they haven’t, it’s a really lousy site. Of course, a savvy Google user can determine that there’s lots –at least 89 pages–on their site that they’re not linking to.

What on that site convinces me that these people deserve more money, or less hours, or whatever they’re striking for this week? I’m sure that they’re Web stats have increased this week, with them being in the news. Why not provide some compelling information to make me more sympathetic to their cause? I’ve emailed them to enquire about this, and the average salary of a BC Ferry worker.

13 Responses to “Step into the 21st Century”

  1. Donna

    As a daughter of union employees who belong(ed) to a union that is frequently reviled by the general populace (ie, Translink)… what is published about job action is rarely what’s actually going on. For example, the transit strike of a few years ago had very little to do with wages, and everything to do with the company attempting to screw the employees over as much as humanly possible, without even asking nicely or using lube.

    At the same time, I’ve also worked in management for a heavily unionized company (ie, Telus) and found it laughable the sorts of things that I could/coudln’t do. I was considered management because my job couldn’t be defined easily on paper, and because I had decision making powers. I didn’t manage anybody, but I was still considered management. Well, whatever, I got awesome benefits so I didn’t complain.

    In my office, about 90% of us were management, with only clerks, reception, and some data entry people in the union. I wasn’t allowed to use the photocopier. Only the clerks could do that. Which made me feel awfully silly, because my clerk was MUCH more senior than I was, probably made more than I did — and deserved it — and it felt akin asking my mother to bring me coffee and rub my feet. But, if I didn’t and got caught photocopying my own papers, I would run the risk of getting written up by the union.

    Silly, but… on the other hand, I just finished a class in Sociology tonight. And while I frequently think that unions have gone WAY too far, the appalling work conditions that people used to tolerate are vomit-inducing. Considering that I just wrote an essay comparing the alienated workforce of the early 20th century to today, and found way more comparisons than really necessary. Well, demonstrators no longer get shot for complaining about crappy work conditions, so there have been some improvements — no, I’m not kidding, workers who demonstrated in front of Ford in the 30’s actually got shot at. By the police. Yikes. Unions were illegal then, too.

    That said… I really can’t see anything wrong with getting paid more. I think a lot of the times when people complain that X person gets paid too much, it’s frequently a case of sour grapes. “Bus drivers get paid $22/h? Lucky bastards, *I* don’t get paid that much! They should get paid less.” Or, “I have no idea what’s actually involved in being a nurse, but I’m *sure* that I do more work than that, and so they should make less.”

    Or something, anyway.

  2. Darren

    You make a number of good points. I don’t deny that, historically, unions have played a very important in workplace rights and safety.

    The only thing wrong with making more money is if that money doesn’t reflect the economy. Supply and demand drive the rest of the world’s salaries, yet they don’t apply to unionized workers. Or, when they are applied (because of a poor or changing economy), union workers go on strike.

    I guess I see millions of non-union positions (from marginally-skilled to the very-skilled) where companies aren’t exploiting anybody–they’re paying them (in salary and benefits) what they’re worth. It frustrates me that that logic isn’t applied to a particular sector of our society.

  3. Michael Kohne

    I think the problem is that many unions have gone from their original purpose (keep our members from being completely screwed, make things better for our members) to the greedy (We want MOOOOORRRRREEEEE!). There ARE jobs that desperately need to have union representation (in the US at least). And teachers are a big one, in my mind. Remember that (at least here in the US) there is really no good way to measure how well a teacher does their job. Thus, without a union, what is to prevent the school district from simply dropping teachers with experience (who make a bit more money, and probably are better at teaching) in favor of those fresh out of school?
    As evidence that this sort of thing could happen, I offer the following contrast:
    My wife works in a district near Philadelphia, PA. She made quite good money, even when starting out.
    Her cousin taught in Blacksburg, VA. At equivalent points in her career, she was making HALF what my wife made. (She has since gotten married and moved, and is now teaching in a different district). She was able to keep herself in necessities, but had very little left for savings or anything else.

    The difference? Blacksburg doesn’t have a teachers union, my wife does.

    This isn’t to say there aren’t problems with unions (the sort of thing you saw is endemic in many places), but please don’t discount them – there are many fields where a union is the difference between sane working conditions and total hell.

  4. Donna

    You’re right, there are millions of non-union jobs where people don’t get exploited. I’m not in a union, and I get treated like gold. :)

    Problem with that is it’s not the employees who get to decide if they’re being exploited or not. Labour laws don’t protect them, so who will? Capitalism is designed to exploit people — without the upper and lower classes, capitalism fails.

  5. Rog

    I’m more socialist than capitalist but I’m jaded towards Unions from my personal experiences.

    I too am a former Union (HEU) member.

    For the 5 years that I was a member of HEU, I never once witnessed a situation of employees getting screwed over by the management, indeed the Union had the management over a barrel..

    ..But there was major screwage from the Union itself.

    I agree with Donna when she says that what is published is often not the same as the situation, but my conclusions may diff. Unions in this province have MUCH more sway with the media than mere employers.

    When I was with HEU, that situation was worsened due to the fact that the president of HEU at the time was gearing up for political office. During the closing of Shaughnessy Hospital, jobs were shuffled in a way that looked best in the newspapers, IE: “HEU saves hundreds of jobs at Shaughnessy” was the type of headline I saw while the real situation was that they bumped people working in other hospitals regardless of seniority.

    After 5 years at Vancouver General Hospital, I was replaced by someone with far less seniority and experience. It had nothing to do with my own performance, but simply because I was in a position that someone else held at Shaughnessy. Seniority of transfering employees was conveniently pro-rated to make it all look good on the books and in the newspapers.

    You wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve told that to that have called me a liar or discounted my experience as an anomoly.

    When People are religious about their support of Unions I start to feel bullied. I suppose I shouldn’t take it so personally, but after losing my job I found that everywhere I went to try to get some form of recognition/compensation for the situation, I would run into a pro-Union person who thought I was just anti-Union. A clerk at UI even warned me that if I spent too much time pursuing the politic aspect of my job-loss that they would count that time against my benefits.

    I’m not anti-Union, I’m not anti-socialist. I consider myself a ‘tempered’ socialist. I actually feel that I have a better balance due to my experience and most of the bitterness with it has now gone.

    Different Unions are different, some are good, some are bad. I lose a great deal of respect for people who blindly support Unions, just as I would for people who are blindly anti-Union.

    I also remind myself that my experiences were based on some of the largest and most powerful of BC’s Unions (the other was CUPE, that’s a different and indirect story). The corruption that I witnessed.. well we all know the saying about power and corruption.

    The unfortunate part is that for a Union to be effective in the good benefits (job protection, equality for wages, etc.) it has to be large and powerful, that’s the whole point. This to me says that if Unions are to be a good thing overall some sort of paradox has to occur. I think it’s possible, I just wonder if it’s very common.

    I’ll temper with this: I think Unions are best served in this province in two situations:

    1. Where the management has already proven to be abusive. I think I’d probably applaud if McDonalds got unionized.

    2. In the transition of recently privatized companies that still wield a good deal of political/civic power (IE Donna’s examples: Translink, Telus). That kind of power tends to naturally get abused and I think a Union works as bit of a counterbalance. I don’t know much about the details of the current ferry situation, but my first guess is that it just falls under this category.

  6. donna

    sadly, McDonalds STRONGLY discourages unions. The one in Squamish managed to unionize for a while, but unfortunately it fell through. The downside to a union for low-paid jobs like that is that they can’t *afford* to pay their union dues. They’re already barely making enough money to survive, and now you’re asking them to cut their wages further? McDonalds employees flip so fast that there’s no way they’re going to give up their hard earned wages so that, in the future, they’ll have some protection against being buttfucked by management. It’s easier to just quit and find another shitty job elsewhere until you get buttfucked there, too.

  7. donna

    Incidentally… with the bad press that unions usually get, I don’t think that they have as much influence with the media as they’d like. I can’t remember the last time I read something pro-union regarding any job action.

    The thing that surprises me is that the unions rarely fully explain themselves. I found out stuff through my parents about the Translink job action that was never made public, and it made them look so much better… so why DIDN’T they publicize it?

    Well, other than the fact that the Liberal government has most of the BC media in their back pocket, and anything anti-union is good for them — pro-union media might make people think back to the good things the NDP did, and heaven forbid THAT happen. Bah.

  8. Rog

    I think what we’re witnessing in the media situation now is the backwash, the fed-up and overcompensating sway of opinion after decades of pro-Union media. I think the clincher were the situations with Translink & the Nurse’s Union, where whether or not the Union was ‘right’ was secondary in most people’s minds. People just saw the Union actions as disruptive. Who wanted to support bus drivers that weren’t supporting the common folks who just needed a way to get to work?

    As for good things the NDP did? They negotiated backroom deals (contrary to our Union policy, but we were told to allow it in good faith with the pro-Union gov’t) with my Union that cost me my job, so that part may be blinding me to other ‘good’ things, please refresh me.

    Was it the privatization of services? The current liberal gov’t seems to get the blame for those and they aren’t exactly innocent (I’m NOT a fan of the BC liberals), but check your dates and you’ll see which gov’t got the ball rolling. How exactly is that pro-socialist and pro-Union? At the time, I felt betrayed and duped. I still feel that the NDP is a party full of lying capitalists in the disguise of socialists.

    Half a billion dollars given to Macmillan Bloedel, WTF? This is pro-socialist and pro-Union?!?

    I’m constantly wishing that BC could find a new pro-socialist alternative to what I consider the most corrupt party this province has ever seen.

  9. Sue

    I’ve worked in a union before, even as a “shop steward,” and I’ve also worked in (and currently consult for) union places where I am not a member of the union.

    I believe the original intent of unions was good: to protect individuals from being manipulated or abused by their employers, in cases where individuals cannot protect their own rights because they lack education or collective power. I’ve been a part of defending union workers on grievances where management was overpenalizing a worker for a mistake, and I think the value of unions holds to this day. On the other hand, we need to ensure that the workplace is fair to both employer and employee, and doesn’t protect bad workers or bad practices simply because they are the status quo.

    This, however, gets bastardized so frequently and horribly that people do not like unions anymore; even the people in them are frustrated by their own “representatives.” I agree with the comment above: power corrupts. However, I know there are people on both sides of the table in union and management in many industries who see a future for that relationship that is more moderate and less adversarial than it has been in the past.

    To sum up my position on unions: they are wonderful tools if only they are used correctly. That will take some time, and some changes in attitudes.

    (Oh, and I believe as of around 1999, an average cafeteria worker on a ferry was earning $19.35 per hour).

  10. Darren

    Thanks for all of that, everybody. And for keeping it more or less civil.

    And, thanks, Sue, for that data point. Predictably, I haven’t heard back from BC Ferry and Marine Workers union on my enquiry.

    If you ask me, unless you’re the head chef on the shift, $20/hour is too much to work in a cafeteria.

  11. Donna

    So I talked to my mom about the ferry stuff this weekend, since she usually knows more about this stuff than I do, having been in a union for the last 23 years and all.

    So, the question is, why do the cafeteria workers on the ferries get paid $20/h? Here’s why:

    By law, the ferries have to have a certain number of trained mariners on board in case of an accident. The BC Ferry Corporation has historically skimped on this, having *just* the lowest number legally allowed. Okay, no problem there, trained mariners are expensive, rare, and take a lot of training.

    So what does this have to do with cafeteria workers? Because they’re all trained mariners. Their usual job might be to slap some scrambled eggs on a plate for you, but if the ship goes down, they are *heavily* trained to get you off safely. And *that’s* why they make $20/h.

    The government would have a very hard time firing them all and hiring new ones, because there aren’t that many unemployed mariners around. Mom saw an interview with the mariners who work on the Anacortes ferries in the US, and they were asked if they would do scab work for the BC Ferries. Not on your life, they said. They’re unionized, already make more than the BC Ferry employees, and there aren’t enough of them to go around as it is.

    So… simple case of supply & demand. Makes sense to me.

  12. Darren

    I also posted my comments to Donna’s blog, but here they are for completeness:

    Thanks for this. While this is useful information, it doesn’t equip me with enough data to assess whether ferry workers are overpaid or not. That is, what does “heavily trained” or “specifically trained in survival skills” practically mean? How many hours of training per quarter do they do? Is there some unpaid certification that they must complete? What are the analogous positions in a non-unionized sector, and how much do they earn?

    For example (and I’m not saying these are comparable, just citing a data point), I used to work (in a unionized position) as a receptionist at a rec centre. I was expected and trained to complete certain ‘back-up lifeguard’ duties, meaning I was directly responsible for the safety of the public. In this particular, unionized setting, I earned $13-17/hour.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have any non-union examples to compare to.

    Incidentally, the writer you quote goes on to describe all ferry jobs as “hard, difficult and dangerous”. He loses some credibility in my book right there. He also doesn’t provide any evidence to back up his assertion that BC Ferries are the safest fleet in the world. In fact, my Google search suggests that Washington State operates the safest fleet in the world. So, there goes another chunk of his credibility. Plus, of course, when he’s an NDP supporter, he’s got no right to cite “the financial incompetence of the BC Liberal government”, particularly when it comes to ocean-bound vessels.

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