Have unions ‘lost Cronkite?’

While generally sympathetic to workers, the public has an increasingly low tolerance for disruptions to their routine. And they’re taking those frustrations out at the ballot box.

By Todd Humber (todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com)

During the Vietnam war, broadcaster Walter Cronkite aired an editorial where he said the war was unwinnable.  In response, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson reportedly told an aide, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.”

Johnson knew the importance of having public sentiment on his side. That’s something union leaders would be well advised to remember when it comes time to express displeasure over negotiations, contracts and government policy.

As I’m writing this, there is labour chaos in Europe. The London Underground shut down as subway workers took part in the first of several planned 24-hour strikes. And French unions are taking to the streets in a nationwide strike to protest the government’s plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Henda Fersi, interviewed by the Associated Press at a train station in France, expressed the frustration felt by many people.

“I’m just getting tired of this because this is not the first time. I understand the strikers’ point of view but, still, they put us in a difficult situation and we are penalized.”

While generally sympathetic to workers, the public has an increasingly low tolerance for disruptions to their routine. And they’re taking those frustrations out at the ballot box.

There may be no better example of this than Windsor, Ont. The city — a pro-union, blue-collar town if there ever was one — turned on a dime last year during a bitter garbage strike. The final straw for many came with a video posted on YouTube that showed a woman (allegedly a union member who worked for the city) approach an elderly couple and their granddaughter, who had been cleaning up a park, rip open a garbage bag and dump the contents out in front of them.

“Here’s some more garbage, since you think you should be doing our jobs,” she is reported to have said to the young girl, according to reports in the Windsor Star.

Since that strike ended, Windsor has outsourced trash collection and parking enforcement. Only a few years ago, it would have been political suicide for local politicians to even suggest the City of Roses go down that road.

A similar scenario is playing out in Toronto. The public fumed last year over a garbage strike where one of the key issues was sick banks — which let workers accumulate unused sick days and then cash out when they retire. At first, residents were mad at the unions for withdrawing the service and leaving them to deal with a stinky mess. But they seemed equally angry at city hall when the settlement came through, frustrated because the sick bank didn’t disappear immediately.

In the wake of that Rob Ford, a right-wing councillor, is leading the mayor race and would likely win if the election were held today.

The fact Toronto, a hot-bed of liberalism, and Windsor can change stripes so quickly is a warning sign. The public has no appetite for union demands, is weary of strikes (especially ones that shut down public services) and is willing to vote for the candidates or the party most willing to squash the union.

There’s an old saying that “employers get the union they deserve.” It looks like a new saying could be “unions get the governments they deserve.”

It’s too early to say with certainty that unions have “lost Cronkite.” But the early returns aren’t looking good for labour.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resources management. For more information, visit www.hrreporter.com.

 

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