What’s the Matter With That Union Boss?


“I am not here to take marching orders from union bosses,” said Mr. Poilievre. “I represent taxpayers and frankly taxpayers expect us to keep costs under control so that we can keep taxes down. It is for those taxpayers that we work. Not union bosses.”

– May 1 Conservative Parliamentary Secretary Pierre Poilievre

Why do the most right-wing politicians and corporate news outlets always use the term “union boss”? Because the worst thing they can think of is to say the leader of a labour organization acts like a capitalist? Or the capitalist’s lackey?

Perhaps the irony of insulting a democratically elected representative of workers by calling him/her a boss is beyond the understanding of most of the term’s users, but it’s interesting to point out nonetheless.

Apparently, right wing editorial page or news editors understand (at least at one level) that most working people are dissatisfied with the arbitrary power unelected bosses have over their lives. By associating unions with widely disliked bosses – the Ottawa Sun, for example, often calls a labour leader “union boss” multiple times in a short article – they act as if they believe this term will discredit labour leaders.

Strangely, one of the main reasons workers seek to unionize is to protect themselves from the arbitrary power of bosses. Often a desire for rules dealing with seniority and discipline, not better wages and benefits, is what prompts people to unionize. Unions fulfill workers’ yearning for some workplace democracy.

In the process they challenge capitalists’ control over the workplace. And by bringing some organizational structure to the amorphous working class, unions also weaken capitalist power in the political arena. This, of course, displeases media outlet owners, the bosses they hire and the right-wing editors whose job it is to be the sycophants of the rich and powerful one percent who run the world.

So, to please their bosses and the bosses of their bosses, these professional flatterers call union leaders “bosses”. Am I the only one who finds this more than a little surreal?

Surely a really good capitalist bootlicker could come up with a more insulting word, one that wasn’t in such direct conflict with their professed admiration for our economic system and all the real bosses who run it?

But nothing works quite like “boss” precisely because that word challenges the whole idea of workers democratically electing their leaders, which is what happens in most unions.

So, perhaps the epithet “union boss” is not really aimed at the presidents, secretary-treasurers or other heads of unions at all. Rather, it is an insult aimed at all workers, who these right-wing minions think are too stupid to participate in the democratic process of choosing a leader.

These yes men of the super rich cannot conceive of workers running their own organizations. When you make your living as a toady you have a hard time imagining anyone else thinking for him or herself. Instead you believe workers always take orders from bosses. After all that’s what you do.

Yves Engler’s latest book is The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s foreign policy. For more information visit yvesengler.com

Yves Engler’s Canada in Africa — 300 years of Aid and Exploitation will be published in September. He’s the author of The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s foreign policy.

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