The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: employment

Kellogg’s and a Future of Contradictions

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So, it’s done, and the effect has been devastating.  Just in time for Christmas, the city of London was informed that the historic Kellogg’s plant will be fully closed down in a year’s time.  It’s not as though London can afford the loss of another major facility; we’ve been losing more than our fair share lately.

No sooner had the announcement been made than the employees themselves become swept up in the various agendas of other groups.  For just one day it would have been good to focus solely on the them and what this will mean to their futures.  The company will move operations to its Belleville plant and keep at it, but the workers … well, they soon won’t be workers.

It is important to note at this point that both the company and its employees in London have left indelible marks on our city.  The Kellogg’s firm agreed to donate huge amounts of cereal products to food banks and agencies across the province.  Most firms who donated 25 years ago desired that their donations be kept within certain boundaries, but Kellogg’s understood that its reach was vast and that its social commitment to other regions could be met through donations from the London plant.  And so, each week, thousands of boxes of cereal and related products moved across the province, all donated, and all the result of a solid corporate responsibility agenda.

Year after year, since the beginning of its presence in London, the Kellogg’s employees donated significant amounts to agencies all over the city.  They gave generously, but also donated expertise and volunteer hours to assist those numerous non-profits.

Our community is now going to lose all that – not just jobs, but the generosity, skills, charitable givings, and food products that so much went in to shaping our community.

It was raised repeatedly yesterday that it was because the workers were unionized that the firm left for greener pastures.  Maybe.  I remember, when I was an MP, when key Kellogg’s officials visited my Ottawa office and assured me that being unionized had nothing to do with their difficulties.  Yet yesterday the anti-unionists came out, reasoning that this was the reason for the closure.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it was.  Yes, we could rationalize that this is the modern global reality and that the ball is in the owners’ court, leaving them pretty much free to go where they wish – which is wherever the bottom line can be situated.  Are we honestly wishing to head down this route, knowing that in the end it’s a mug’s game and we have no say in how we build and sustain our communities?  Must we continually blame unions when the fault really lies with the 1% who just can’t abide by the growing success of the middle class?

We are rapidly journeying to a place full of contradictions: people without jobs, jobs without people, jobs disappearing when plenty of labour is available, and employability replacing employment.

For those on the top of the economic pile, work has become commodified – a means to an end.  They think little of work’s value other than its ability to form a product.  But our communities were never established on such a premise.  Kellogg’s was fundamental to our city’s success – at least the old Kellogg’s.  In the modern world the worker has become a problem – a drain on modern business – with the result being a race to the bottom for labour standards, wages, and worker input.  These were the very things labour movements strove for and every one of our communities benefitted as a result.

The separation has been achieved: the dignity of work is no longer essential to profit.  And although a group of very plugged-in people has deigned this to be the new paradigm, they certainly didn’t ask us about it.  Yet we endorsed it by going along, and they knew they had us by the nose.  There are ways to reverse this trend, but it would involve major players being brought to account by the greatest arbitrator in the democratic world – the citizen.  Until we take on that responsibility collectively we will always be out-muscled, out-spent, and just plain out in the cold.

But this is for another day’s debate.  Right now, hundreds of families in London are going through what many are across the country.  Our thoughts are with them.  Just in time for Christmas, they must now plan, not only how to spend their money, but maybe if they should sell the house, take kids out of daycare because they can’t afford it, skip the family vacation, and perhaps have to admit to themselves that they might not be able to send all their children to university.  Many of them will be caring for aging parents – something exceedingly difficult to do if a world of endless wandering, looking for work.

These are our peers – citizens with whom we share a democratic estate.  And as long as we continue to justify our present predicament, the more we will see our neighbours fall on hard times.  The only thing these Kellogg’s workers did wrong was to make an honest living, support various charities, repeatedly assent to wage cuts so that they could maintain their jobs, attempted to keep their families together, and lived their collective lives among us as responsible citizens.  In a proper world – a Mandela world – they would be the jewels of any community.  It’s time to put the responsible citizen at the centre of our new future … and we must learn how to fight for it.

History’s Trick

disappearing-jobsThere were many good responses to these last few blog posts on the future of work – some very worth exploring. But largely our leaders of politics and economics just return our questions with a deafening silence.  At the moment, there is no inclination to deal with the problem of the slow disappearance of work.

Political theorist, Judith Shklar, used to maintain that work is more crucial to the core values of democracy than anything else, including family or even government.  Shklar died some 20 years ago, just at the onset of burgeoning unemployment. What would she think of her theory today, now that work has been demeaned, or worse, done away with altogether?  Even if she were partially correct, then the loss of work would result in the threat of civic status, of community virtue, and ultimately the legitimacy of democracy itself.  Surely that is serious enough for us to consider how we might avert such a crisis and strike a new path forward.

Given how deeply the financial and political systems have failed, there is no shame in no longer possessing meaningful employment.  But consider the sheer waste of it – humanity arriving at the point of emancipation, sustainability, and citizen possibilities only to discover that it had constructed models of moral and financial diminishment.    The list grows longer everyday: unemployed, underemployed, homemakers, seniors, welfare recipients, disability, mental health, dislocated veterans, listless youth.  Surely there must be someplace of worth for such individuals in our supposedly wealthy societies, positions of work and worth.  Why can’t civil society have its own work force?  Is there not the possibility of an army of employed caregivers at every level of society?  

Have we arrived at this point in our human journey only to discover that history has played some coy trick on us, that the “survival of the fittest” is alive and well in our cities, communities and neighbourhoods?  Can we rehabilitate ourselves, bring ourselves back from the brink of inanity and lack of purpose in a fashion that will put work – meaningful work – in it proper place in society?  Whatever the solutions to our predicament will be, they will surely involve a more refined capitalism and a more engaged citizenry.

 

The Precipice

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A number of folks responded to yesterday’s blog and wondered what the solutions might be to a future without work.  Those answers are beyond my knowledge.  I know that in my time in politics that the subject was rarely broached.  But at different non-political sessions I attended (university seminars, United Nations special panels), the subject was front and centre and carried with it its own growing body of research that points to a difficult future.

Perhaps what is required is an entirely new look at how modern societies function and the role that work – physical, mental, emotional – can play in arenas outside of economic production.  What would happen if, in addition to production, we moved employment in the post-industrial world to embrace sectors of social responsibility, of citizen activity?  What if we began implementing economic policies that took on those activities that manufacturing, information or technology sectors could not do?  Would it be possible to provide employment benefits through investment in high-quality human capital that we critically require at this juncture of civilization’s development?

We must understand what this means: a dynamic and structural shift to an economic paradigm that includes and rewards caring for ourselves, the elderly, our children, and for the planet through targeted expenditures for the training and support of such sectors.  Research in the fields of both psychology and neuroscience show that high-quality care is fundamental to the best kind of human development.

The free market system, described as the overseeing “invisible hand” by Adam Smith, has been permitted to remain detached from the human condition despite tremendous wealth being generated.  It is time to break through that traditional model to develop economics that provide empowerment to the human condition and not merely wealth – or the lack of it.

Consider our most common economic terms – free markets, inflation, interest rates, gross national product, international trade, globalization, corporate profits, privatization, outsourcing.  These, and many others, have little to do with our daily lives as citizens.  They form the lexicon of the economists, politicians and policy makers, and they have so much captured the economic language of the world that alternatives are almost unthinkable.

It is ironic that the word economics comes from the Greek term oikonomia, which meant “managing a household.”  While those economic terms listed above surely affect our homes, they are neither sourced in our habitats or consciously realized in our families.

Our economic models must begin to provide greater priority and value to those aspects of modern life that enable more productive communities and a more equitable world. They must transform current dysfunctional government policies and business practices.

It is a challenge that is as political as it is economic.  We require moral precepts and civic reasons to inspire and force a new change, a new economic logic, in which work expands into the care of society in general in ways sufficient to ensure citizen responsibility.  Serious and comprehensive thought must be expensed on determining how to resource new employment opportunities – meaningful work – throughout society in general.  But it will prove insufficient if the present wealth being generated in the trillions of dollars is not channeled, at least in part, to the cause of overall societal and environmental renewal.

We stand at a precipice between our past and future, considering the possibility of turning history back on itself and putting humankind into a kind of forced servitude reminiscent of earlier centuries.  The irony would be rich if it weren’t so troubling: just at the moment of our greatest wealth, we run the risk a future without work.

Democracy was supposed to be about the merits of citizenship and its responsibilities to the human condition.  But with the birth of the middle-class we began the process of losing our way, journeying down a path that gave more merit and more force to the wage earner rather than the citizen.  We quickly discovered that we could pay civil servants to do the work of building communities for us and hived ourselves off to the greener fields of materialistic pleasure.  There was a certain logic to this; as our communities became bigger and bigger, the sophistications of governing became more nuanced and specialized.  But the process left us for decades without a growing understanding of the modern challenges facing our world, our country, our communities.  It worked, apparently brilliantly, for a time.  Our distractions didn’t appear to hurt us, and the growing professionalism of the bureaucratic class prepared us for modern collective life.

At some point in the past 30 years it all began to go wrong, though slowly and imperceptibly at times. The political class made the shift from responsible oversight of the citizenry to a form of babysitting the consumers in a manner that was almost seamless.  Things suddenly became about putting more discretionary money in people’s pockets as opposed to expanding the infrastructure required to prepare our citizens for impending challenges.

Economist Lester Thurow has been over this ground many times, and concludes: “Our future is the masterless labourer, wandering from employer to employer, unable to build a career.” Well, that only needs to be the case if we refuse to look at new models for our modern society. That moment will come. Our worth and self-respect depend upon its arrival.

The Great Hollowing Out

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What is it going to look like when we eventually reach the stage where only two in five citizens actually have a liveable wage?  What is to become of work itself – its meaning, contribution, benefit for the charitable sector, and its link to the value of citizenship?  How will those who no longer work acquire any dignity or status within a modern society?  If labour is always linked to capitalist production, what happens when it’s not?  What if nothing is really required from most of us in a world of globalization?

We can’t seriously discuss such questions right now in either the political or economic spectrums because … well, it’s just too disruptive to consider.  There will be plateaus along the way that will hold up this inevitable process for a time, but new transformations are coming.

We have seen this before, during the Industrial Revolution, when the introduction of mechanization resulted in the huge dislocation of the former agrarian society.  While the technology produced a vast array of new products, there was a time when the hordes who were put out of work threatened to destroy, by their collective weight, any progress that had been made.

We are heading for such a time where don’t really know the end from the beginning.  If work is associated with worth, self-esteem, community respect, capacity, citizenship, and provision for family, what occurs when it is delinked from production because such values aren’t really what private enterprise is aiming for – namely the bottom line?  The irony of possessing “lifetime employability” while remaining “lifetime unemployed” is just too bitter to consider.

It all comes down to this.  In an age in which more wealth is being generated than at any other time in human history, it is increasingly being accumulated without the assistance of workers.  And what does depend on labour is increasingly driving down worker standards and wages in order to make a profit and satisfy shareholders.  To many this makes sense and to others it is lunacy, but the reality is that it is the future.  The statistics contrasting the ever-increasing corporate holdings continuing to climb while workers’ share moves progressively downward are everywhere, and yet policy makers, many economists, and capitalist leaders alike continue to direct us down the same avenues that resulted in this complex intransigence.

It’s not as though there aren’t some nagging doubts in the back of the minds of capitalist leaders about what will happen when workers, kept on the cheap, or not at all, don’t have the resources to purchase the products or make the investments.  Wasn’t it Henry Ford who noted that if his own workers didn’t make enough money to buy the very cars they were making then his vast company would fail?  But that was the old capitalism, celebrating its infancy in mass production.  Under the new regime, it isn’t exactly clear what the future will hold if significant sections of the population are either unemployed or underemployed.  No matter; as long as profits remain high, corporate leaders will continue to roll the dice, hoping to postpone the day of reckoning.  It’s one thing to require fewer workers than customers, but what does it mean when your customers were once former workers and no longer have the resources to purchase products?  It’s a troubling omen.

 It’s hard to believe that it was almost 15 years ago that former American Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan observed,

It is one thing to believe that the economy, indeed the job market, will do well overall, but quite another to feel secure about one’s individual situation, given the accelerated pace of corporate restructuring and the heightened fear of skill obsolescence that has apparently characterized this expansion.”

What must workers think now, not even two decades later, with employment far more fragile and the future of work looking ever more bleak?  There will be a thousand adjustments made until the cliff is reached – shorter work weeks, job-sharing, early retirements.  When modern civilization reaches the point where work has been stripped of so much of its meaning and value and where those employed make scarcely enough to afford the necessities, not so much the luxuries, the restructuring required will be significant, even historic, and we will look back on our present circumstances, wondering how, in the greed for profits, we had remained so intransigent.  If nervousness truly is a sign of being ill-prepared, then our modern generation is in for a stressful ride.

Valueless Work

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WE THOUGHT IT INVIOLATE, the link between work and production.  But like the relationship between democracy and voting, or citizenship and responsibility, historic alliances appear in decline.  We just so happen to live in a generation in which change has been so profound that the foundations of stability that we have counted on for centuries seem no longer dependable. 

History appeared to concur with Aristotle: “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”  Yet history now seems to be at a pivot point.  Once a sense of fulfillment is hollowed out of human toil all that is left is drudgery.  But for those on the top of the economic pile work has become commodified – a means to an end that thinks little of work’s value other than it ability to form a product.  In a very real sense, the modern labourer has become a problem, a drain on modern business, with the result being a race to the bottom for labour standards, wages, and worker input.

Upon entering an era of ironies, we find ourselves forced to deal with some increasing contradictions – employability replaces employment, people without jobs, jobs without people, numerous part-time jobs replacing full-time ones, employment numbers going down because people have stopped looking for work altogether.

Modern employers rationalize all these changes by saying that efficiency is the order of the day and that they are only seeking more flexible arrangements to take advantage of modern markets.  Such things are code words revealing that, to them at least, the dignity of work is no longer a profitable pursuit.  As advocate Sara Horowitz put it: “What this means in reality is people are working increasingly without benefits, and increasingly without the protections of labour legislation: pensions, minimum wage, occupational safety, unemployment insurance, age discrimination.  The list goes on.” 

Technology has increasingly rendered the worker superfluous to the bottom line.  In fact, author Jeremy Rifkin talks repeatedly about the disappearance of work as we know it, and a painful transition into a “near workerless information society.”  The likelihood that employment in advanced societies has already reached its peak now stands as a real threat not only to communities, but to economies as well.  How can people purchase when their spending capacities decline each year?  If work is still the way people earn their livings, how can any future be productive if people can’t find the jobs required to sustain such a construct?  If money can be made from money, why would investors or companies show any interest in making their profits in the historic fashion by hiring workers?

All this is just another way of saying that modern economic growth is less linked to human labour than at any other time in human history.  Wealth without work: who would have imagined such a possibility in previous generations, save for those who already had wealth through investment?  

Economic history was premised on a kind of delicate balance between work and wealth – one couldn’t exist without the other.  The natures of both riches and the various kinds of labour were variable, but the symmetry between both was a sure thing.  This arrangement provided the income people needed to survive as well as the productivity required for economies to flourish and progress.  Because of this importance to the greater good, work was endowed with a kind of meaning and value that reflected its importance.  Max Weber’s “Protestant Work Ethic” helped to codify it, but its true meaning has been with us for more than a millennium.

But there was more.  Holding work was also having status in the community, even when it was the most mundane of labour.  One provided for their family.  They had skills that could be put to good use for the economy or the community.  Diligent work also became one of the undergirding virtues of a society.  Yes, there was abuse from the bosses, and the ever-present desire to keep wages low to maintain high profits, but the work meant something and reflected a greater outlook and impact on society.

No seasoned observer can confess that this is the case today.  As employment becomes more scarce, work itself often takes on a meaningless quality, especially with the rise of the service economy.  All this is transpiring when more wealth is being generated than at any other time in human history and where those in the upper tier of wealth are seeing fantastic gains on their investments.

This isn’t a trend; it’s a disaster in the making.  Though one of the greatest problems of the age, politicians have no answer for it.  And yet we poke along in the kind of myopic hope that somehow things will turn around.  They will not, and it’s time to put the problem front and centre.

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