In the troubled light of recent events in Wisconsin, the questions many of us have begun to ask regarding the value and necessity of public sector unions urgently require to be answered. Do they contribute to the public welfare or have they become at best distractions and at worst militant organizations aggressively invading the social and political arena to achieve their ends? My own experience once predisposed me in their favor, but the love affair ultimately went sour.
When I first began teaching at a community college in Montreal, my salary was so anorexic it scarcely made ends meet. Hell, it scarcely made beginnings meet. I was forced to rely on loans and to take on extra jobs just to keep afloat, for several years putting in a 15-hour-a-day work schedule. It was only thanks to the teachers’ union that I and those in my position were eventually able to extricate ourselves from these sweatshop conditions and actually concentrate on teaching rather than surviving, though we had barely contrived to raise our living standard above the subsistence level.
Finally, the year came when the union won a comparatively reasonable contract from the government employer, enabling many teachers to contemplate for the first time the miracle of discretionary spending. This bonanza, such as it was, lasted for only a brief period, for the Parti Québécois administration announced its intention to let the contract expire and unilaterally roll back the salary increase it had agreed to, instantly stripping us of 20 percent of our income. The union called a general strike and we were soon out in the streets, carrying placards, picketing the premier’s Montreal office and occupying the campus premises.
We were animated by a feeling of binding camaraderie as the various teachers’ unions across the province had joined together in a spirit of presumably unshakable “solidarity,” otherwise known as the Common Front. We knew we had justice on our side, were confident of public support and were convinced of inevitable victory in what was both a moral and legal struggle to resist the encroachment of arbitrary authority and reclaim our abrogated rights. But we had underestimated the ferocity of the government’s response. To begin with, it refused to budge and begin renegotiating in good faith and instead threatened collective dismissals. It then imposed punitive financial penalties on the strikers, moving to deduct two days’ pay for every workday missed, so that we found ourselves on the receiving end of a triple whammy: a violated contract costing us one fifth of our wages, no salary coming in, and forfeiture of future earnings.
Still we persisted, ready to go the limit, until we assembled one morning, placards in hand, to learn that we had been betrayed by a sister union, the large and influential Centrale de l’enseignement du Québec (CEQ). This was essentially the Francophone teachers union, headed by one Yvon Charbonneau, a long-time Marxist, also denounced as “seriously anti-Semitic” by the Canada Free Press—which had nothing to do with his caving in but augured poorly for the future. The strike quickly collapsed, our spirit had been broken, and for years to come bitterness and recrimination eroded whatever enthusiasm we had once brought to the classroom, despite being critically underpaid. We were never able to recover. As for the redoubtable Monsieur Charbonneau, he was eventually posted by the Canadian government as ambassador to France—the plum appointment in the diplomatic service.
In the interim between then and now, the public sector unions have gradually redefined their social and economic platform into an ideological one, devoting their attention and resources less to the welfare of their members than to defaming the state of Israel and joining the BDS movement, the dubious Charbonneau having furnished an illustrious precedent. Indeed, in these intervening years we have seen the unions go from organizations dedicated to serving the interests of their members to entrenched corporations intent only on protecting their management prerogatives and advancing their own political agenda. Their constituents are the least of their concerns. Most public unions today (and some private sector ones) resemble not their communitarian predecessors but the very Quebec government that flouted the law and imposed its dictatorial will upon its employees. The boot is now on the other foot.