The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: Kellogg’s

What Would Jesus Ask Santa?

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He was a Christmas angel, though I couldn’t spot it at first.

We had been going into Westmount Mall on Friday evening to just cheer on the volunteers who had been wrapping Christmas presents in return for a donation to the London Food Bank.  It was pouring rain, and on the way in the door I noticed a man standing off to the side who was obviously having a difficult time.  He appeared down and out and discouragement seemed to mark his disposition.  We went on inside and then I suddenly thought better of it.

“I’m getting a coffee for some volunteers inside; can I get you one?” I asked.

He smiled at that point and though he had first declined, he went on to say, “Actually, it’s cold.  A coffee would be great.”

For the next few minutes I couldn’t get him out of my mind.  I wanted to know his story but knew better than to ask.  At Tim Horton’s just inside the door I get him a $10 gift card and passed it to him as I walked outside.

“Thought you might be hungry,” I said as he took the card.

There was a lot of dignity in his handshake and his “Merry Christmas” stirred my heart.

It was only as we got to our SmartCar in the parking lot that I noticed he was following.

“You Mr. Pearson?” he asked.

“I am.  What’s your name?”

We spoke for a moment longer and then he handed me the gift card.  I worried that I had offended him, but his next words drove the meaning of Christmas home in a way I won’t forget.

“Give this to one of those Kellogg’s employees, okay?  One of the ones that lost their jobs.”

The entire panorama of Christmas meaning comes in an exchange just like that.  He told me he had lost his job two years previous, was 58 years of age, and was struggling to get by.  “I’ve had to use the food bank a few times; hope that’s okay?” he stated.  If only he knew that there were 3600 families a month using food bank services, often in circumstances just like his own.

What kind of city is it that produces citizens who, despite oppressive circumstances, reach out to others who just experienced devastating news?  Well, that’s our community – London, Ontario – and through a lot of pain and sense of loss we are populated by local angels just like this man.

The entire experience made me think of Garrison Keillor’s observation: “A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.”  In circumstances that seemed totally unrelated, a poor man of dignity, Kellogg’s workers, the food bank, the mall, the volunteers, and this humbled citizen were all woven together in a tapestry that could have just as easily been printed on an ideal Christmas card.

I wondered again what kind of Christmas Jesus would ask Santa for, and vice versa, and I think I got some kind of answer.  It would be a world filled with those who could get outside of themselves just as that man had done.  It wouldn’t matter if it was in a manger or a mansion, a hovel or a skyscraper.  As long as the people in such locations could reach out beyond their own circumstances, then Christmas would be a state of mind and not just a season.  A just society would be more about shared than hoarded wealth.  The future of children would be about choice not chance.  Politics would be about purpose not paltriness.  Communities would be about the future not the past.  And people like that man outside the mall would be honoured for their citizenship and sacrifice.  Yup, that’s what Jesus would ask Santa for, and I decided to ask for it too – not out of some kind of ideal, but out of the practical experience I had outside of a mall on a rainy night.

Isn’t this really what the majesty of Christmas can be about – how the dignity of one man fallen on hard times can be celebrated in the house of everyone?  If we can’t understand that in our hearts, then we’ll never find Christmas under a tree.

Knowing about the spirit of Christmas is one thing; actually doing it is another.  Out of his own constrained circumstances one man introduced me to the reality of the spirit of compassion and not just its possibility.  Communities have been built on less but become their greatest when poverty becomes a thing of the past and the richness of the human spirit directs our actions.  May it be so.  Merry Christmas to all of you.  And on earth, peace to all of you of good will.  

A Christmas Carol Revisited

Below is my Huffington Post piece published yesterday on London’s Kellogg’s employees and their remarkable ability to assist an entire city in recapturing Christmas meaning.

Glen Pearson

Director, London Food Bank, former Member of Parliament

A True Christmas Miracle in London, Ontario

Posted: 12/17/2013 5:32 pm

My hometown of London, Ontario is currently reliving its own version of A Christmas Carol. The announcement last week of the shutting down of the Kellogg’s plant in London, and the increasing pressure from modern capitalism to reduce wages and break unions, has left us as a city reeling and hoping to find better times. We are just like many other communities in this country, as we watch wealth inevitably pull away from us.

Charles Dickens made his name situating the character of the struggling individual against the powerful forces of the moneyed elite. In A Christmas Carol, we find Bob Cratchit working away in a “dismal little cell,” deficient of heat. He dons a tattered white comforter to keep him warm, since he can’t afford a coat. The wage provided him by Ebinezer Scrooge in insufficient for Cratchit to provide a proper Christmas dinner for his family.

And then Scrooge gets spooked — literally. Both the ghost of Christmas present and the ghost of Christmas yet to come reveal to the miser not only the effects of his paltry human spirit, but the true nature of the person he hired and just what a good man he is. Cratchit had always been there for his family, especially with his sick son Tiny Tim. But he had also endured a brutal boss who loved the bottom line and only saw his employee as a means of getting there.

We are left with the impression that two ghosts won the day and that Scrooge experienced a change of heart. But the apparitions were just vehicles to show him the true state of his spirit. Yet his great awakening came the moment he silently witnessed the true character of his employee, his circumstances, and how Cratchit had somehow managed to maintain his belief in the nobility of the human spirit despite the constant threat of job loss and an insufficient wage.

The world is quickly spinning towards a titanic showdown between modern capitalism and democracy and the results are not yet clear. Income inequality is on its way to becoming the true litmus test of not only our communities, but of the free market itself. It can maintain its present course and not only witness the hollowing out of our communities, and also be one of the primary causes. The drive for profits has slowly replaced the desire for place, for communities where hard work is rewarded and where employees are valued participants in the larger economy.

We are rapidly working our way towards a future of wealth for the few without work for the many. Our cities are increasingly witnessing vagabond workers, moving for job to job, often for minimum wage, toiling without benefits and with little future for advancement. Despite fabulous wealth being generated globally, it moves ever upwards, out of reach of average families, and hoarded by protections against spreading it more equitably.

A modern state cannot exist merely made up of politics and private enterprise. Any good society must offer citizens a vast array of ways to get involved in developing various levels of co-existence, solidarity, and participation. Politics and capitalism will dominate any space where a robust civil society is struggling. Worse still, political ideologies and the free market will become increasingly dysfunctional the more humanity is stripped from their workings. In a democracy, this element of civil society, and the ability to determine collective well-being, must be predominant or else we will enter the stage we are presently enduring — power without accountability, wealth without responsibility, and citizenship without community.

We believed the days of Dickens were behind us, but we now see their resurgence. We must press for change, for the great trimming down of economic inequality, and for the reform of capitalism into a place of usefulness and empowerment to our respective communities.

Bob Cratchit comes out as the true hero of Dicken’s novel — a worker, a family man, a believer in the goodness of people, and a man capable of rising above his circumstances.

London, Ontario just witnessed a similar example yesterday, as Kellogg’s employees, despite the devastating news of the impending shutdown, raised $10,000 and purchased quality foodstuffs for the local food bank. If we are ever to find a reason for believing in Christmas, this is it. Those employees have caused me personally to raise my game, to be a better citizen, and to struggle against capitalist and political forces that have lost touch.

I wish for more ghosts this Christmas, to reveal to us the inner strength resident in citizens and to persuade corporate leaders that the true spirit of humanity is not to be found in the bottom line but in the better angels of our nature. Invest in that and we will discover new hope, potential and wealth.

High Noon

MPW-17611I was fortunate enough this past week to have received numerous emails from Kellogg’s employees, thanking me for some recent posts.  A theme from these messages began to emerge.  People wanted to explore some of the ideas about how our current economic/political/social system is no longer sustainable.  I think they hit on the crowning struggle and question of our age.

Things are coming to a head – perhaps not this year or next, but soon.  It’s like the Gary Cooper movie High Noon, when the solitary figure of a man determined to do right and protect his community goes up against a number of individuals determined to undo his value system.  Today, democracy is squaring off against the forces of a capitalism that has, perhaps besides its best intentions, begun to undo the very human capital it once so much depended upon.  To date, it has had its way in many of our communities, but as its deteriorating effects become more obvious, as with a situation like the Kellogg’s plant, a democratic backlash is emerging.

A modern state cannot exist merely made up of politics and private enterprise.  Any good society must offer citizens a vast array of ways to get involved in developing various levels of co-existence, solidarity, and participation.  Politics and capitalism will dominate any space where a robust civil society is struggling.  Worse still, political ideologies and the free market will become increasingly dysfunctional the more humanity is stripped from their workings.  In a democracy, this element of civil society, and the ability to determine collective well-being, must be predominant or else we will enter the stage we are presently enduring – power without accountability, wealth without responsibility, and citizenship without community.

In any good society, the greatest interactions are played out by non-profit organizations, neighbourhoods, civic celebrations, citizen encounters, houses of worship, local coffee shops, clubs, groups and a myriad of places where traction is gained for the broader community.  These are the things that provide those places where we live with their life-giving energies.  Vaclav Havel might as well have been talking about London, Ontario:

After all our upheavals, it is time for goodwill, tolerance, decency, interest in others, faith in the good in humanity, respect for our neighbor, natural responsibility, modesty, and an amicable view of the world to return to our social climate.  The more successfully this is done, the better we will all live.”

In so many of our communities these are the very things that are under threat, as neither politics nor capitalism can produce them.  In reality, together they are resulting in the opposite.  Only a rediscovered civil society can save us.

But those attempting to build that society have some sincere questions that, while many will question their validity, are rising to the forefront in citizen consciousness.  In their way, the questions are simple.  The importance right now is not the answer, but the very fact they are increasingly being raised.

  • Why can’t communities recall their political representatives who behave badly or put the party before their constituents?
  • If capitalist elites are stripping wealth from our communities while still using our roads, banks, universities, airports, security measures, and natural wonders, should they be brought back into the social compact that worked for decades?
  • If corporate taxes continue to decline, how can our communities possibly maintain the living style they took years to establish?
  • Why are politicians permitted to govern when they have already confessed to crimes?

What is interesting about questions like these is that they are being asked everywhere around the globe – the supposed capitalist domain.  Everywhere it has ventured and enriched itself, questions such as these are being left in its wake.  And from them have come certain theories that are gaining increasing traction.  Why can’t a global tax be placed on those global transactions that remove wealth from one country to another that will help to reimburse the communities they have left somehow depreciated?  What if citizens practiced civil disobedience to reveal their displeasure with a political class that seems as inept and it is remote?  If large businesses get public funds to expand their efforts, why not charge them a service fee for using a community’s infrastructure?

Look, these are questions that many will object to and attempt to refute, but the reality is that citizens and communities are asking them increasingly – Kellogg’s employees are asking them everyday.  Such queries are being brought forth because of the very inability of politics or commerce to reverse our slide.  Corporate barons and economists alike might belittle them, but such challenges are beginning to keep pace with corporate profits.

If the economic reforms of the past three decades are not matched by the increasing capacities of civil society, our lives will inevitably become one-dimensional, caricatures of themselves, and will result in an apathy towards public affairs – much like we have now.

We must rebuild a system in which words, kind deeds, responsible business, and responsive politics can shake the very structure of the elites and where words themselves can become more powerful and transcendent than capitalism’s call to our baser selves and the penchant for politics to turn us away from the public space. 

What took place at Kellogg’s this past week is just another step bringing our communities into a showdown with capitalist forces gone astray.  And such power will not prevail as long as citizens openly ask such questions.

Kellogg’s – We’re Not Done Yet

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 6.14.36 PMI LOOKED UP SO SEE FOUR PEOPLE coming down our driveway.  They introduced themselves, but it’s what they said next that set the tone: “We’re from Kellogg’s.”

They were insecure but had lots to say about wanting me back in politics, about the corporate agenda, about what this community has meant to them.  And then, sadly: “Glen, how do we get help from the food bank when the time comes?”

This is rapidly becoming the state of modern community life – people who helped arrange food drives at Kellogg’s were now going to require some of that very food themselves.  This is no way to run a society, and nor is it any way to treat people who built our cities and regions.  Sadly, my morning wasn’t done.

I headed to a local coffee shop and encountered another Kellogg’s employee who wanted to thank me for my blog post the day before and to say how much it meant to the workers.  Yet the sadness on his face said it all.  At that moment, a former Conservative MP – a good friend – walked in the door with his wife.  He reminded us that in 1984, the Mulroney government had granted $223 million to Kellogg’s in London for an expansion project that would make the local plant one of the most technologically advanced manufacturing facilities in the entire company – 1,140,000 square feet. 

“Glen, I was there when the Prime Minister came to down to announce the funds and we were assured by the company that this would make for a prosperous future. What happened?” he asked. 

Simple math would tell us that the our funds were used to assist a company to build a more solid future in London not quite 30 years ago.  Now that company is leaving, having used our investment to make their fortune, and leaving hundreds of devastated families in their wake.  What happened indeed!  We feel like a community undone.

Work seemed to really matter in our community.  But that was before the evolution of the new economy, where elites could move anywhere around the globe in search of cheaper labour; where they would press governments, foreign and domestic, for ever lower taxes and the diminishing of labour and environmental standards, and where the ultimate goal was treating labour as a commodity rather than a standard of dignity or a necessity to community.  Only a generation ago we believed that wealth would increase in dramatic terms and that jobs would be available for everybody.  The first part has become the reality while the second lies in ruins.  In a period of a generation, work has gone from edifying the soul by giving it value to undermining it by forcing it into banality.  Where we once hoped for a better world, driven by equity and progress, we now face the real chance of massive global unemployment and the spread of poverty.  We are entering an era of cheap people and very expensive machines.  As the world hurtles along this path, directed by a global financial juggernaut of the few, the link between labour and prosperity will be a part of our past, not our future.

We must find a way to dignify work once more and enable wealth to work for the many. A bleak future is never inevitable in a world where citizens still possess the opportunity to turn their countries around.

So let’s start with some easy steps.  Here are two ideas.

This morning I spoke with my friend, Andrew Lockie, director of the United Way in London, and proposed that our two organizations hold a community reception for Kellogg’s employees in the spring.  Both the United Way and the London Food Bank have been huge beneficiaries of funds and food from these employees.  And that is just what we will do, drawing in other community partners like labour groups, businesses, civil society groups, and citizens aplenty.  We will celebrate and honour those among us who didn’t just live here, but actually built our community.  We are in the process of putting that event together and we trust everyone will be there.

And, then, let’s begin a larger conversation on the future of work.  It was in the 1930s that things seemed so inevitable and that the capitalist barons owned not only their companies and wealth, but the future.  But at some point, citizens and their politicians came together and reversed a trend that seemed inevitable.  The boom that resulted for those moments of daring created the great middle-class.  Of course, we live in a globalized world now and bringing companies back to the community table won’t prove easy.  But if a global consensus can be reached, it can be done.  Capitalism will hang itself if it proceeds down this course. Let’s think of ways we can further that conversation and start talking about the new and valuable work of tomorrow, a more ethical capitalism, living wages, and the important and dignity of work for all of us.

The employees of Kellogg’s, and even the company itself for a time, remind us what is possible when investment in a community matters.  London has some remarkable citizens from Kellogg’s to celebrate, and then we must turn our attention to a future where citizenship – corporate and individual – begins the process of building renewed communities.  We’re not done yet.

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.

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