I know that Toronto isn’t the centre of the universe. When I obsess about local issues, I have to keep in mind the likelihood that some readers have no idea what I’m talking about. Like, for example, the folks in Accra, Ghana (!), who visited a couple of dozen times in the past 10 days.
So let me try to take a global perspective on an local issue for a change.
In this strange part of the world, at this peculiar point in our history, on this particular date every year, we celebrate the birth of Queen Victoria. Don’t ask me why. As a self-promoting group of undertalented celebrities, the House of Windsor ranks somewhere between the Kennedys and the Kardashians for me.
Nevertheless, the government grants us one extra day of leisure on or about the 24th of May in memory of Victoria’s birth in 1819. That was 48 years before Canada was a nation, so the relevance of that date is hard to fathom. Victoria never even visited our country, yet she is beloved. Half the cities and towns in Canada have at least one street named for her, and there are hundreds of heritage and geographic points of interest bearing her name. Again, don’t ask me why.
In the words of a former Prime Minister, Canada has “too much geography and not enough history.” It’s no surprise that people under the age of 40 in recent memory have referred to this holiday as “May two four weekend.”
For them, the entire significance of the holiday resides in the “2-4,” which is the date of Victoria’s birth. And incidentally, the 24 bottles in a case of beer that the serious drinker traditionally takes to a May 2-4 party. A government-sanctioned day of drinking!
Perhaps then, you might understand the panic among non-beer drinkers because of strike threats by employees of the provincial liquor monopoly here in Ontario. It may be May Two Four weekend, but it’s considered equally patriotic to consume all forms of alcohol on this warm, late spring weekend. So, eleventh hour negotiations with the liquor retail union commanded headlines in the press! And some people started stocking up early.
The strike was averted at the last minute, God save the Queen, and both sides left the bargaining table left feeling that they had scored a victory. Management of this public agency claimed to have negotiated a fair pay rate in a time of austerity, while union leaders claimed to have won enough concessions to satisfy their membership. All agreed that the public had been well served by their agreement, and once again the alcohol flowed freely in time for Queen Victoria’s birthday celebration.
Now why should someone on another continent care about this?
No part of the world is exempt from the natural tension between management and labour, and the pattern emerging here should alarm even teetotalers around the globe.
Ever since organized labour began reshaping our economies, consumers have been held hostage during conflicts with management. Labour strife slows production and creates scarcity in order to enforce its demands. Corporations may suffer from a loss of sales and profits, but it is consumers who do without goods or services during a strike, and who pay for the eventual settlement afterwards.
But what happens when this familiar pattern is used by both sides to induce panic consumption among consumers. Although I’m not making any accusations and claim no privileged knowledge of the facts, the Ontario liquor strike, threatened just prior to May Two Four weekend, has all the earmarks of a consipiracy between management and labour.
The timing was too perfect. Both parties were too pleased with the outcome. And the media attention they generated together could only have increased demand just prior to one of the biggest drinking days of the year. I’m just saying that by cooperating in this charade of labour unrest, they might have succeeded in triggering enough extra sales revenue to close the small gap remaining between the contract offer and the union’s demands.
The scheme would have worked like this: Management knows that contract negotiations are coming up and that an increase of some kind will be demanded by the union. Both sides have a pretty good idea about what a new agreement will cost. They employ professional negotiators after all, who have nothing else to think about all day. Once they’ve narrowed the gap between offer and demand, they could cooperate on a plan to stimulate stronger sales through the media. In this way they could resolve their differences through a strike threat rather than through an actual strike.
Both sides know that it’s almost impossible to win an actual strike. The lost wages and lost sales, along with the PR damage the parties inflict on each other, wipe out a lot of the gains they score on paper.
Maybe they figured out that both sides could win from a false threat of strike. It’s easy to dupe the media with the appearance of conflict on a slow news day. It’s even easier to create hysteria among drinkers who experience false withdrawal symptoms at the mere mention of a liquor strike. The result could be a bump in sales. This bump in sales, when added to the avoidance of strike costs, could take the sting out of the new contract terms.
Around the world, in Ghana as in Canada, we should fear the day that labour conflict ends. We may suspect corruption within labour unions and unethical bargaining methods among corporations, but what we should fear most is harmony between them. For consumers, whether babies drinking formula or truckers drinking whisky, collusion between labour and management is more dangerous than bitter strikes and riots in the streets.
Let me be the first to say it. Labour peace must come to an end. Workers of the world, unite! Strike early and strike often. That way, consumers will at least know when they’re being screwed and why. It’s all about transparency.
Here ends my first and last internationally relevant post. I will now turn on the television to watch the BBC’s coverage of the labour disruptions in Ghana that are bound to arise from this insightful analysis.