Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The comfortable pulpit of a public service union leader

Can there be any better evidence of the fat and complacency that infects a union leadership than the example set by Sid Ryan, the President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Ontario? He is fed, housed and clothed on the backs of the membership dues paid by more than 200,000 public service employees, who might, if given the choice -- which, by Ontario law, they are not -- find a better use for some of the dues they pay to that union.

Mr. Ryan is back in the news declaring CUPE’s opposition to the state of Israel. He is initiating a resolution with the union executive that would call upon post-secondary academic institutions in Ontario to shun Israeli academics unless those Israelis are on record as condemning the war being waged by their country against Hamas. This is not his first outing into the politics of the Middle East. When Israel was battling Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ryan got CUPE to pass a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli goods and services.

The remarkable thing this time, however, is that this comes during the worst worldwide recession this country has faced since the Dirty Thirties. Everywhere, businesses are laying-off workers, union or otherwise, but especially union. Elsewhere, there are dark hints that unions might have to roll back gains they have made in the past few years.

You would think that a union leader should be sticking to his knitting at a time ofgreat economic and employment peril and would be issuing statements that would give comfort to his membership. The last thing you would expect is to find the media full of stories and interviews with a union leader who is occupying his time fretting about an intractable political dilemma thousands of miles away that has little direct impact on Canada and no impact on the individual dues-paying members of the union.

Now, we all understand that unions do more than just ensuring job security, benefits and wages for their members. They get involved in social policies and politics. For the most part, this is not unreasonable. Union support for universal health, universal education, and universal pension plans, minimum wages and minimum severances are all things that have legitimacy because they also enhance the living standards of the union membership. But how do banning goods and services and academics from Israel provide advantage to CUPE union members?

Why would Ryan feel so comfortable in stepping out in this fashion from his proper role of looking after his union membership?

Part of the answer I have already given. His standard of living is ensured by a law requiring the compulsory payment of union dues. Secondly, only a small number of union members ever involve themselves in the politics of the union. Union leaders tend to be big frogs in small ponds. Thirdly, this is a public service union – meaning it represents civil servants. The last time Ontario suffered a debilitating recession, nobody in the Ontario public service got laid off, although they did have to take some unpaid days, so Ryan’s membership is pretty well secured without his involvement.

Perhaps the next time CUPE elections role around, union members will ask some searching questions about what Ryan’s Israel hobby horse has to do with the members’ welfare. Perhaps the members should be asking for a reduction in dues comparable to the time/money wasted by Ryan and his associates dabbling in Middle Eastern wars.

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