Business

Passionate, but wrong

The grinding poverty of Hargrove’s childhood provides context for his rage

Deirdre McMurdy November 30 1998
Business

Passionate, but wrong

The grinding poverty of Hargrove’s childhood provides context for his rage

Deirdre McMurdy November 30 1998

Passionate, but wrong

The grinding poverty of Hargrove’s childhood provides context for his rage

Deirdre McMurdy

Last month, shortly after signing a new collective agreement with its 6,000 unionized employees, Canadian National Railway Co. announced it was eliminating 3,000 jobs from its payroll. Labor leaders quickly expressed their outrage at the unexpected cuts. But investors rewarded the company’s hard line by immediately driving up its share price. And within a week, coincidentally, CN’s top executive, Paul Tellier, graced the cover of The Financial Post Magazine, selected by peers as CEO of the year for 1998.

It is not the first time that a company’s shares have appreciated on news of major layoffs or plant closures. According to the recently published memoir of CAW president Buzz Hargrove, that phenomenon indicates just how far corporate and social agendas have diverged in Canada—and just how far we have strayed from the humane socioeconomic model that once prevailed.

In Hargrove’s mind, there is no question who is to blame: “What the corporations have achieved is nothing less than the systematic dismantling of the socioeconomic system that Canadians built over the past four decades,” he writes. And at the heart of his book, Labour of Love, is the argument that unions must play an increasingly political role. He believes it is up to them to address the growing disparity in Canadian society because “our democratically elected government has been overthrown by a corporate junta.”

In Hargrove’s view, “The CAW is a social movement because you can’t leave the remedy for social damage to those who have caused it.” But Hargrove’s anger extends well beyond the denunciations that labor figures always reserve for the usual suspects in Big Business, the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties. In fact, his remark underscores his disillusionment with the New Democratic Party, which once served as the left-wing conscience of Canada and champion of the underdog. Recently, he has criticized the federal wing of the NDP for its decision td work more closely with the business community, to explore and develop new patches of common ground. But in Labour of

Love, he reserves undiluted venom for Bob Rae’s former NDP government in Ontario: “In my estimation, nothing has done more to damage the cause of social democracy in Canada than the Rae government.”

Hargrove is an angry man. The book’s account of the grinding poverty of his childhood provides some context for a rage that he admits to stoking by reading the business sections of Canada’s daily newspapers. Nor is there any question that such a passionate opponent of the status quo is always a valuable counterpoint, and especially so at a time when consensus heavily favors unfettered capitalism.

But Hargrove’s assumption that politicized unions are an answer to Canada’s socioeconomic problems is flawed. Union leaders are elected by their members to represent them and their specific interests in the workplace. Although he argues strongly that unions should be “agents of social change,” directly shaping the policies that affect the communities where their members live, the union mandate does not automatically extend beyond the narrow sphere of collective bargaining issues such as pay, working conditions or job security. The blunt fact is that if labor unions were as appealing politically as their leaders like to claim, the NDP—which has almost always enjoyed their formal support—would be far more than the marginal force that it is today federally.

Moreover, by their very nature, unions represent a vested interest. Just like the corporations that Hargrove excoriates, unions have a stake in perpetuating themselves, in advancing policies that will allow them to profit in some way. That means, ultimately, that Tellier and Hargrove probably have more in common than either man would like to acknowledge. Each is charged with securing optimum benefit for the people he works for. The irony is that, given the financial clout of employee pension plans, leaders of the “corporate junta,” such as Tellier, actually work for the very interests that Hargrove represents: the long-term security of workers. In the muddled financial world of the 1990s, it may still be true that you cannot always have it both ways—but that does not mean unionized workers will not try.