Tag Archives: unions in canada

“Gotta Spend Money to Make Money”… or is it “Make Money to Save Money?”

2 Aug

 “Young people want to retire early and spend, too”.

That’s the main finding of a survey commissioned by the Bank of Montreal, released today in newspapers across the country.

The coverage of the survey report is problematic on its own. For instance, although 1000 Canadians aged 18 and over were surveyed, the focus in media reports has been on the 40% of the youngest respondents, who said they intend to retire by age 60. Moreover, although 73% of those young people said they’ve “tucked some money away” for retirement, the headlines point to the 27% who haven’t.

But let’s ignore, like everyone else has, the relative weight of those numbers. Let’s shove aside the majority who are planning financially for retirement and the 60% who think they’ll retire after age 60, and let’s focus on why young people are irresponsible with their money, naïve, materialistic and lazy, shall we?

Let’s ask why there is this apparent delusion on the part of SO MANY young people who, at the beginning of their working lives, are already dreaming of Freedom 59. I propose we seriously consider the findings of another survey, released last month by the Pew Centre.

That study found that in most countries, a minority or only slight majority of people believe that “hard work leads to material success.” Those who do have faith in the rewards of work effort are more likely to support capitalism, while those whose faith is wavering are more likely to believe that people would be better off under some alternative form of political economic organization. Subsequent commenters have interpreted these findings as signs of “declining” faith, despite having no historical or longitudinal data to back up that claim, and in the spirit of totally ignoring data in order to proceed with argument, I’m going to accept the “decline” narrative and add it to the “irresponsible youth” narrative.

But I also want to add one more study, which does seem to have a bit more reverence for its empirical findings. Specifically, NPR released data on “how America spends its money,” and it showed how people in the bottom, middle and upper income brackets divide their money to cover standard expenses. Perhaps surprisingly to people who want to think that poor people are idiots with no self-control, the figures show that compared to wealthier folks, people in the lowest income brackets spend a greater proportion of their income on housing, food (at home, not at restaurants – not even the fast food restaurants you might assume all poor people go to; don’t get your Stephen Harper Brand knickers in a knot), transportation, health care and utilities. They spend virtually nothing on education, and very little on retirement. In fact, among the poorest families, only 2.6% of income gets put toward retirement savings. Among the richest, it’s 15.9%.

Taking all of these surveys together, I want to make two more tenuous arguments.

First, if young people aren’t saving money, maybe it’s because they don’t have it. If our data look anything like the US data in the NPR report, young people’s money is going toward housing, transportation (and to tuition, which is rising yearly in most provinces) and ramen noodles for home consumption.

I can support this argument with an anecdote for now. Last year, as a highly educated 28-year-old research fellow in Toronto, I spent 45% of my income on rent. I spent another 12% on food at home, and 8% on tuition. I spent about 10% on flights to and from Nova Scotia to visit family. I spent 3% on a monthly cell phone bill and about 1.5% on internet. I spent about 3% on clothing and shoes, and about 8% on medical and dental, because I had no coverage. I blew the rest on moving everything we owned to Nova Scotia to start a new job.

I spent virtually nothing on daily transportation because I couldn’t. I didn’t put away anything for retirement because there was nothing left. And I don’t even have any debt – so I can only imagine what it’s like for the many people who paid for their education on credit, on the hope that it would pay off in the end.

Second, if young people want to retire early, it’s because the rewards of hard work are increasingly difficult to see. We’re told we’re not owed a pension, benefits, bonuses, vacation, or even raises at the level of inflation. When we ask why, when we cry foul, we’re called entitled, spoiled, or just idealistic.

But we’ve seen what the protestant work ethic – the belief in hard work as a reward in itself – does to the body, the mind, families and communities. At least, we’ve seen what it does in an economic system where most people are required to sell their labour for pay, and relinquish any of the profits or surplus value their work makes possible. I’ve seen pelvises crushed by coal cars in the mines of Spring Hill, heard of fathers and grandfathers swept from their fishing boats and washed away in the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve witnessed ageing workers, with 20 years at a company, watch their yearly raises shrink to below inflation in the name of ‘tough economic times,’ while their employers continue to increase their share of company revenues. Why on earth would I have any sense of obligation to a system like that? Why would anyone?

The real shame of the retirement savings data is that it’s pitched as a warning to young people to be more sensible, to come to terms with the realities of the day, to look out for themselves because no one else will. What we should be doing is getting angry, coming together, and fighting for a social, economic and political system that helps (nay, forces) us to take care of one another.

State of the Union: Part 1 of 2

7 Feb

Unions, in Canada and the world over, are facing perhaps their biggest battle of the last eighty-odd years. Not only are they fighting to protect workers against governments and employers (and government employers) armed with the powerful language of crisis and austerity, they are also doing it with very little sympathy or support from people who are not (consciously) involved in any meaningful way in their struggle. Indeed, unions have been downright demonized lately.

Seeing this, Trish Hennessy has called 2012 the year of “the unionbot”: the rise to dominance of a science-fictiony rendering of The Union as “an immutable, greedy beast” that “invades Planet Earth”. I think she’s hit the nail on the head, but in my view, there is also something more mythical (almost biblical) in the narrative emerging around both public and private-sector unions, most notably in recent months. I started writing this post thinking I would get us out from under the myths, break down the ideological barriers to sympathy and support, and write us all onto the same page.

I’m sorry to report that I’ve simply transported us from one impasse to another. Today’s post will culminate in that dead-end, but there will be a part 2 that asks how we can move beyond it.

The myths

Three myths seem to dominate the narrative that has us, today, at a ‘fateful moment’ of sorts, for unions. The first myth – one that governments and corporations alike have been using to their sole advantage, and that a disappointing number of ordinary Canadians have been quick to accept – is that these are just plain tough economic times, and public and private employers alike have no other choice but to cut labour costs to stay afloat.

Not only does this simply fall flat in the case of Caterpillar – which was turning record profits when it decided to close the London EMD plant – it’s also misleading in general. The “tough” part of the times we live in isn’t that money is just disappearing; it’s that money is concentrating in fewer and fewer hands. There are people and corporations, albeit in shrinking numbers, who are actually doing very well right now, in part because they’ve absorbed the money the rest of us have passively hemorrhaged over the last several decades.

From Snippits and Snappits - http://bit.ly/wIQLCtAnd it’s not that they’re no longer reinvesting their money out of concern about the global economy. It’s that they’re investing elsewhere, in places where they can exploit workers by paying them far less while still turning out the same number of products. (“Exploit,” by the way, is absolutely not hyperbole in this case. It is a highly accurate way of describing what goes on when capital “flies” to other countries.)

A second myth relates to the kinds of workers who are, right now, on the front lines of a battle we will all face, sooner or later, if things don’t change. Specifically, every third internet commenter reminds others that these “unskilled” labourers, working for London’s EMD plant or Halifax’s Metro Transit, are making far more than minimum wage doing work that requires no skill or education. (From industrial sociology, we learn that the more appropriate term for this type of work in most cases is “de-skilled”: recognizing that work that was once done by hand or at least wasn’t fully mechanized is now helped along by machines to such an extent that the individual worker is, in some respects, dispensable, through no fault of their own.)

Even notwithstanding the last point, a day on a shop floor or in a public transit driver’s seat will confirm that “de-skilled” or “unskilled” jobs actually require a great deal of skill. Such jobs might not necessitate a post-secondary degree (so that’s what we’re really talking about here, isn’t it?), but then again neither do a lot of jobs we consider “skilled,” some of which pay exorbitantly. One need look no further than professional sports, modeling, or sales, or any of the work-your-way-up jobs in finance and business for those kinds of apparent breaches of the “low skill = low pay” law. But even in the absence of comparison, the work done in manufacturing, public works and resource extraction is hard on the body, it’s dangerous, it’s thankless, it can be loud and stinky and uncomfortable, the hours are shit, it’s dull and mind-numbing, and – oh yes, that’s right – it’s incredibly undervalued and stigmatized. And it should make us sick to think that our sympathy and support is reserved for people whose jobs are somehow more noble, because they “require” post-secondary education.

Beyond the myths, there are also a handful of tired old tropes that do nothing but obfuscate the real issues at the heart of the labour negotiations causing so much consternation in every corner. The only one I want to address here is that of the lazy union worker whose job protections make him impossible to fire. I’m sure we all know this guy. I’m not disputing his existence. But I am going to point out that he’s just one guy in most workplaces – ONE GUY – whose specter somehow eclipses the hundreds of other employees who can thank the union for their wages, their weekends, their lunchbreaks, their health plan, and their protection against arbitrary firing.

We know people are creative. They can be deceptive. They game systems. They are capable of finding ways to get what they want with minimal effort, and that is never going to change. But despite what the rational-choice economists might say, we are not all system-gamers all the time, nor is there much risk of all of us being that way, so long as we’re treated fairly and get some minimal intrinsic rewards from the job. The impossible-to-fire-unionized-worker, even if he shows up in every single workplace, is not a reason to dispense with unions altogether, just as the crooked cop is no reason to dismantle all police forces. Both provide protections we would be screwed without.

The morality

With those three barriers-to-an-actual-conversation out of the way, where do we find ourselves? The answer – you’ve been warned – is at an impasse.

In conversations with people I know, and in reading what people I don’t know have written or said publicly, only a tiny bit of nuance needs to be erased in order to see that there are, for all intents and purposes, two “sides”, with competing perspectives on the last several months’ labour struggles. On one side, there is the view that unions are “pricing themselves out of a job”, often combined with the argument that workers, particularly in the industries and jobs we devalue (i.e., every one but our own, it seems) should be thankful simply to have a job. The rationale is usually that there are other people who make less who would be willing and able to do a unionized job for minimum wage without any benefits. Therefore, the unionized worker is exhorted to concede whatever benefits s/he has. It’s a line of reasoning that comes from the same cold, shriveled place that incubates the basest viewpoints, like Toronto Councillor Doug Ford’s, that “nobody should have a job for life.”

Oddly, this set of views finds as much purchase with people who’ve benefited, either directly from public and private pensions, or indirectly from the early union struggles that gave us labour laws and time off, as it does with people who actually would do a job for minimum wage. From both groups, the message is that no worker should get, well, anything, beyond the privilege of going to a job. They might object to that, but ask them what workers do deserve, and that’s the answer you’ll get, once they strip away all of the benefits that appear to them to be superfluous.

As The Coast’s Tim Bousquet put it in a recent article about the Halifax bus drivers’ strike, this line of critique is music to employers’ ears, and it doesn’t do us any good either:

“These are such anti-labour times that an objection is often raised that amounts to: ‘I don’t get to pick my schedule, why should bus drivers get to pick theirs?’ But saying all benefits others receive that I don’t receive are unreasonable benefits is a loser’s game, ultimately leading to fewer benefits for everyone. That’s the sentiment management is appealing to.”

A slightly less common approach to playing the same “loser’s game” is to make unions out to be greedy and only in it for themselves. Particularly in the case of striking public workers, the argument is made that the union is insensitive to the inconvenienced public – indifferent to “the common good.” That point, I respectfully submit, is bull. It’s bull for so many reasons, not least of which being the fact that the greatest mass prosperity is only possible with a strong middle class. Again, Bousquet puts it better than I ever could, writing:

“our baser instincts [tell us] the path to personal prosperity is to impoverish everyone else. Quite the contrary is true: a securely employed, well-paid working class is the surest path to societal-wide prosperity. We must do better by each other, and better by our public employees.”

So while this is a moral position I’m taking here – that we should be inclined to raise each other up for our common humanity rather than knock each other down for our different vocations – it’s also factually in our better interests to protect middle class jobs; protecting middle class jobs, whether you like it or not, means extending middle class benefits and salaries to jobs you think you could do with your eyes closed.

The common ground

The foregoing litany of disagreements might suggest a complete absence of common ground, but I want to argue that there is widespread agreement about one significant thing. People who believe a unionized worker deserves job protections and wages far above subsistence level, and people who don’t, all accept that the profit motive is an inevitable part of free market capitalism, and that it rarely works in favour of the employee. Really, no matter what one’s take is on unions, one must accept that, in the economy as we know it, private companies are inevitably going to want to earn more money, and public employers are going to want to trim costs, which means they’ll both want to boost productivity. Their preferred method of doing so is to reduce the cost of labour.

We also agree that in a global economy, if it’s possible for capital to move somewhere where the labour costs are lower, with very few exceptions it will do it without blinking. As Jim Stanford puts it in his brilliant Economics for Everyone, “private employers do not hire workers as a public service. They employ people to produce something and sell it for a profit.” That’s what Caterpillar did and is doing, and it is not going to change.

Finally, we even agree that the individual worker is powerless when it comes to protecting his or her interests (making a living, having a vocation, avoiding the psychological and financial insecurity of precarious work) against those who own and control the workplace. Unionism is a direct response to this fact; as a movement, it recognizes that workers are only a force to be reckoned with collectively. I can’t think of a name for the other kind of response – the one that stems from thinking that unions have “outlived their use.” Passive acceptance, maybe? Exceptionalism? No matter what you call it, as David Macaray pointed out here, it’s a “dangerous” way of reacting to the logic of capitalism. As he writes,

“Without worker collectives and worker solidarity, the whole shebang would quickly devolve into “every man for himself,” which is precisely what corporations dream about when they go to sleep at night.”

From Snippits and Snappits: http://bit.ly/wIQLCt

This, I argue, is our final impasse: the schism between those who believe in solidarity across the working class (the 85% of Canadians who have to work for an employer to make a living) and those for whom self-defense is the noblest modus vivendi in an increasingly hostile world. The question for “us”, in the former group, is whether we can win enough of “them “over to turn the tide. The risk is that we’ll have to hit bottom before they believe it’s there.

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