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BRIAN JONES: Snowmageddon buries St. John's, uncovers social injustice

The blizzard of Jan. 17 and the state of emergency that followed it showed the inequity of metro area civil servants and private-sector workers. - Reuters file

Someone on social media finally expressed a good idea amidst all the banality: when you are finished shovelling, go out for a drink or dinner or both, and leave your server a nice big tip.

It was a simple, practical and fun suggestion that would instantly help some of the people who lost income due to the weeklong shutdown of St. John’s because of the Jan. 17 blizzard.

As the snowbanks rose, so did public concern about the numerous non-unionized, low-wage workers who would not be paid for the shifts they missed, through no fault of their own.

Their plight renewed calls for the government to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

In also laid bare, before the first snowblower was even fired up, the incredible inequality that exists among and between working people.

During Snowmageddon, the schools were closed, but teachers still got paid.

Memorial University was closed, but professors still got paid.

Government offices were closed, but provincial employees still got paid.

If George Orwell were shovelling on Gower Street, he might say, “Some workers are more equal than others.”

This fact has been apparent for years. Top-level union leaders generally ignore it. Recognizing it and admitting it will do nothing to advance the interests, i.e., wages and benefits, of their members.

Public-sector union leaders are especially adamant that all workers have solidarity in their efforts to extract their fair share of society’s wealth.

Except, realistically, workers aren’t all on the same side. A minimum-wage worker has nothing in common with a teacher or a provincial employee. The latter will retire with a pension that is higher than what a minimum-wage employee will ever earn by working.

Every time I bring this up, The Telegram’s letters page receives a scathing rebuttal from someone at the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour or CUPE or NAPE or whatnot.

Before they start their furious typing, let me declare this: for several years, I’ve been treasurer of Unifor Local 441G. I’ve been a unionist since 1980, when I got a summer job in a unionized workplace and temporarily became a member of the Teamsters. (It was terrific, except they wouldn’t tell me what happened to Jimmy Hoffa.)

Talking about the inequality among workers is not anti-union. Suggesting that some workers — government employees and teachers, say — enjoy perks and privileges that are exorbitant relative to what other people can possibly hope for does not espouse a “race to the bottom,” as some union leaders are fond of saying.

It is an insult to low-wage workers to deny this inequality. Using the meaningless phrase “race to the bottom” is an added insult, in addition to revealing that the user lacks a basic understanding of free-market economics.

Why did most low-wage workers not get paid during the weeklong Snowmageddon? The answer is simple and inescapable: because their jobs, and their earnings, are entirely subject to the laws of supply and demand.

Talking about the inequality among workers is not anti-union. Suggesting that some workers — government employees and teachers, say — enjoy perks and privileges that are exorbitant relative to what other people can possibly hope for does not espouse a “race to the bottom,” as some union leaders are fond of saying.

Blame their employers if you want. But even the people who cut the cheques can’t escape the workings of the free market. To the cliché, “It takes money to make money,” we can add, “It takes money to be able to pay your employees.”

In contrast, public-sector unions have succeeded in insulating their members from the laws of supply and demand. This is great for teachers and government employees, but less so for everyone else.

Teachers will be prone to object, “But I do an important job.”

Indeed you do. No one says you don’t.

“I work hard for my money and benefits.”

Yes, you do. So do a lot of other people.

Those are not at issue. What is at issue is that some workers at the upper echelons of income have become indistinguishable from politicians who proclaim, “I am entitled to my entitlements.”

No union leader admits this. And yet, admitting it is a necessary first step to obtaining long-term economic justice for those far lower on the income ladder.

Here’s a thought that should horrify any good unionist: the low-wage workers who lost income during Snowmageddon helped pay, via their taxes, for the paycheques that continued to be received that week by teachers, professors and other public-sector workers.

Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached at brian.jones@thetelegram.com.


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