As the world recovers from the global financial crises, governments are beginning to realize that there is a deeper flaw in our systems of social services. As the average age of the population in many western countries increases, due both to medical advancements and low birthrates, the proportion of workers to those receiving benefits is changing. As our parents’ generation — the baby boomers — move into retirement, the burden will fall to us to pay for their continued standard of living. Here at home, the retirement age is 65, and between 2001 and 2006 the number of Canadians between the ages of 55-64 increased 28 per cent.
France is facing this problem acutely, as they struggle to get their budget deficit under control, and manage the ballooning costs of their social welfare programs. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 years old. This relatively minor change, one that is in my opinion necessary to secure the overall future of the French economy, has met with massive protests organized by unions. In my view, this is a short sighted and selfish effort by unions to protect the narrow interests of their own leadership, as opposed to serving the common good of their own members and of the French people.
It is important to be clear that not all unions are acting against the interests of the people. Many unions for police, firefighters, nurses, etc, do a great job of looking out for the interests of both their members and society as a whole. But in my view, what we see in France, with unions crippling the transportation system and further damaging the economy, shows that they have become out of touch with the average worker and their families. It seems that in the face of threatening economic realities, unions have time and time again reverted back to tired and failed solutions, which involve either raising taxes on hard working people to pay for bloated and excessive union dues, or raising taxes on the “rich,” who more often then not are actually small business owners who are the backbone of most western economies.
What I see in the actions of the French unions and in their efforts to create civil unrest and disruption is a complete refusal to face economic reality, and a failure to heed their own creed of sacrifice. The attitude exhibited by the unions in France, and many other western countries, is an attitude of wanting to take but never to give. They want others to sacrifice, but they don’t want to sacrifice anything themselves.
Unions once served an essential purpose. Throughout the industrial revolution workers were often treated no better then slaves. It was essential for workers to fight for their basic human rights, and unions brought necessary changes. Today, though, with a few rare exceptions, unions no longer fight for progress, they fight against it. They no longer fight for the rights of their members; they fight to control them. Whereas it was once unions who wanted workers to have freedom and choice, it is now small businesses that promote the true interests of workers. The unions see their power weakening, and they are afraid. So as we see in France, they are lashing out in anger.
The economic problems of the world will not be solved through anger or from imposing systems of control upon people. As many eastern economies rise the West will have to adapt. We will succeed only if we are rational and realistic about the economic challenges we face.
We owe it to previous generations to make sure that we sustain their standard of living in their retirement years. They built a world of unprecedented prosperity for us, and the least we can do is honor their effort and hard work by providing for them. But to achieve this, we cannot allow narrow minded union groups to put the interests of their leaders above their own members and every individual. The foolish attitude of thinking you can consume more money without producing more value will hit a dead-end called bankruptcy. As western economies take steps to avoid this fate, unions are often standing in the way.
Spencer Fernando is the International Comment Coordinator for The Manitoban.