Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
While reading a newspaper editorial this morning about the public sector union fight unfolding in Wisconsin the phrase “not your grandfather’s union” popped into my head. For me, this is emerging as an important theme of modern life which extends well beyond the global warming debate.
The world has changed dramatically in recent decades, but our analysis hasn’t yet caught up. We still think of Greenpeace, for example, as a shoestring, underdog operation. In fact, this organization has grown so wealthy it now commissions $22-million custom yachts [backup link here].
When I was a child, unions represented hard rock nickle miners and people who actually worked in steel mills. Today, unions are more likely to represent government employees with the sorts of pay, benefit, and pension packages many of us can only dream about. The United Steelworkers of America continues to represent blue collar workers but it now also represents people who work in supermarkets, health care, and call centers (see here and here).
Unions have a role to play in the system that’s comparable to a defense lawyer. They are supposed to defend union members right or wrong, to advance their interests, and to secure the best deal possible on their behalf. Unions don’t tell their membership that the “jobs for life” concept doesn’t make sense anymore. They don’t point out that it never was sustainable. Instead, they push hard for whatever they can get – and let other people worry about the consequences.
That’s perfectly OK – as long as the rest of us are clear-eyed about these matters. As long we don’t fall into the lazy habit of equating unions with lofty notions like fairness and justice. Where unions are concerned, we need to lose the romanticism and keep repeating to ourselves: They are just another interest group.
Exactly the same approach is required regarding environmental organizations. While we’ve been busy living our lives, these activist groups have all growed up. When the World Wildlife Fund needs to hire a new person to lead its climate change campaign it doesn’t place an ad on Craigslist. It buys a half-page in The Economist magazine – above the half-page recruitment ad placed by the International Monetary Fund.
Many environmental groups are now corporate behemoths. Which means they face many of the same pressures as other corporate entities. In order to maintain their current level of staffing, they need to raise funds. They raise funds by raising the fear level in society – by hyping supposed planetary emergencies and ecological holocausts.
These organizations have a right to exist. They have a right to communicate their point-of-view. But we need to stop cutting them slack. We need to quit glossing over their shortcomings with a mumbled Well, their heart is in the right place.
The fact of the matter is that their heart is in rather close proximity to their pocketbook. They are just another interest group. They are just another interest group. They are just another interest group.