The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: unemployment

Valueless Work


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.

The Left. The Right. The Insanity.

spy-vs-spy1Sometime around three decades ago, the modernized and industrialized Western nations permitted a new political construct to leak into their language – the “Left” versus the “Right”.  Nothing has been the same since.  With two sides now clearly defined, people moved fairly quickly to one or the other.  There were two real problems with this.

The first is that it never effectively reflected the complexity of Canada itself.  We were a pragmatic people whose official political landscape wasn’t about one side or the other but how to coalesce around the middle as a means of benefitting the majority of the population.

The second problem with Left versus Right is that there was no real sustainability built into the terms.  By their very nature they were opposites and battles were the inevitable result.  It was no longer about compromise, but winning.  That being the case, most Canadians showed little interest in such a construct and just went on about their business, leaving the battlefield to the political professionals who showed little interest in the public space.

And now there is the third great problem: neither side is relevant anymore.  Consider this.  A recent report that has received all kinds of attention purports that in the U.S. the rich have gained $5.6 trillion in the financial recovery, while the remainder lost $669 billion.  The richest 8 million families saw their wealth rise, on average, from $1.7 million to $2.5 million each.  Meanwhile the 111 million families that constituted the bottom 93% suffered a decline of $6,000 each.

None of us are surprised at these numbers because we’ve believed the game has been rigged for some time.  In 2012, on Wall Street, the top hedge fund manager earned in one hour as much as the average American family in 21 years.  Surprised?  One would have thought the huge lending institutions, including the banks, that brought on the economic downfall would have had to foot some of the bill for the recovery.  Instead, Wall Street leaders pressed governments at all levels to cut public expenditures, slash public employment, and use public funds to bail out the big guys.

We aren’t shocked by such developments anymore, but what is interesting is that in the U.S. both governments from the Left and the Right basically enabled the same outcome.

And then we play the game of observing that these are American numbers, not Canadian.  The influences are the same, however – groups lamenting that corporate taxes are too high, governments are too big, regulations are too numerous, and Canadians are just too distracted to care.  Unemployment not only remains stubbornly high, the majority of the jobs recovered from the recent economic downturn now make less than $15 an hour.  Yes, new jobs have appeared, but you might need two or three of them to support the standard of living you enjoyed two decades ago.

Well-known Canadian entrepreneur and former under Secretary General of the United Nations, Maurice Strong, witnessed the birth of the Left-Right divide and worried that it might place economic matters above all else on the global agenda.  “Most of the valid needs as yet unsatisfied are of a non-material nature.”  He was right then, and he’s right now.  And neither the Left nor the Right have any answer to this.  Canadians instinctively know this and thus turn away from the political order as a subtle means of protest.  The professional political soldiers keep duking it out, but the front has already moved someplace else.

American political observer Jim Wallis observed these developments at the same time as Strong.  His conclusion was fundamental to how we need to move on in our political and social language:

It is time for both the left and the right to admit that they have run out of imagination, that the categories of liberal and conservative are dysfunctional, and that was is needed is a radicalism beyond both the right and the left, which is neither liberal nor conservative but fully compassionate and just.”

The premise of a “society”, especially a democratic one, is that its participants are in general agreement and are willing to work together for solutions.  But when its political system is one of perpetual combat and “take no prisoners”, it is hard to understand how a good society can keep from becoming a dysfunctional one.

Grief, Generosity, and a Galvanizing of Community Spirit

What began as a brief comment ended up as a unique citizen exercise. Ed Jackman (look for him in the video below) was in the car with us on the day Caterpillar announced it was shutting down the ElectroMotive plant in London. His concern for our community was obvious, and with a tone of anger and empathy he said quietly, “People need to talk. We should have some kind of meeting or something.”

In my community, that’s sometimes all it takes. Within an hour, some of us on the Citizen’s Panel had selected a time and an agenda for the kind of gathering Ed was talking about and last night it all came together.

When you see Ed in the video, you’ll experience a bit of trouble hearing him. Mild-mannered and quiet, without knowing it he had become a community champion and those of us who know him quietly flushed with pride at what he had done. We had expected 50 citizens and got 90. Worried that things might go off the rails and careen into personal agendas, what we got instead was a group of people who, of their own accord, stayed on the subjects of how do we help these ElectroMotive workers and at the same time help our community find a less-vulnerable future.

I spent almost five years in Parliament and often felt frustrated that I couldn’t get much accomplished. But last night I felt more was done in just two hours than what had occurred during my feeble attempts in Ottawa. One 140 character message on Twitter! That was all that was sent out and this wonderful meeting was what came of it. Remarkable. But then again, this is our town and this is how we’re learning to respond to pain.

People offered to give rides for kids of the workers to hockey or other events. Offers were made of daycare, groceries, finance counselling. One lawyer stood up and offered to assist in any legal difficulties around EI or severance, and then launched it a sixty-second appeal to seek alteration of the investment review act that permitted Caterpillar to stride through our community as though it was invulnerable. Another investment analyst rose up and talked about how to divest from such companies. Some of the workers expressed their collective fear for their children.

Yup, this is citizenship at its finest and some of us were lucky enough to witness it in action. As one older woman said upon leaving, “Glen, this is Norman Rockwell stuff; I never thought I’d see it again.” Well she did and her own hope for her country was renewed – not by some leader or vaulted figure, but by others just like her.

On a day when the Prime Minister refused to permit Elizabeth May to rise and give tribute to recently deceased president Vaclav Havel (an honoured member of the Order of Canada), anyone who wished spoke at the one parliament that really matters – the Parliament of Citizens. Humbled by their commitment and their willingness to listen, I thank all of them.


An End and the Beginning

Well, it’s over. Tears filled our eyes this morning as my wife and I heard that Caterpillar had finally made the decision to cut its workers loose and shut down the plant for good. Jane wondered if I had perhaps invested so much in the lockout over the last few weeks that I hadn’t prepared myself for the news. Perhaps she was right.

What to say? Emotionally I can’t stop thinking of where these men, women and children go now. They were locked out, denied Employment Insurance, and now have to negotiate with the very company that walked away from them to get some kind of severance. As we approached the line upon hearing the news there was many hugs and even more tears. I shook one man’s hand, only to receive a bear hug as he said through his tears that he would be seeing me at the food bank shortly. What could I say? These are familiar faces who will soon be in my neck of the woods, collecting a few food supplies to feed their kids. It won’t be a moment to be proud of.

But it’s important to remember that my community did not fail. In fact, it became energized in ways I haven’t witnessed previously. In every corner of this city I ran into people who continue to express sympathy for the workers and anger at Caterpillar. And slowly many of these people drove to Oxford St. East, parked their cars, grabbed the coffee, and walked up to the workers, unsure as to what to do or say. It was enough. They were there and that’s what counted.

I guess I’d have to be honest and express my disappointment at the jurisdictional squabbling offered, especially by the feds, who couldn’t express enough that this was a provincial matter. That’s like watching people drown as you’re boating by and asking them to hang in there because it’s the Coast Guard’s concern. I still have trouble accepting it. These people needed a lifeline, not a battle over responsibilities.

But there is something that can now be done. Federal MPs stressed that the workers couldn’t get EI because they hadn’t officially lost their jobs. Well now they have – sacked in fact – and that’s a game changer. Terminated by their employer, they now qualify for EI. The problem is that they are fighting for severance at the same time and EI can’t kick in until that is solved. So here’s something you can finally do without any jurisdictional excuses. Seek to streamline the access to EI in this unique situation. Given Caterpillar’s modus operandi, the severance issue might not be settled for months. Get these workers EI now and help them to survive. The maximum a veteran worker gets is two-thirds of their salary for 42 weeks. They’re about to lose their homes, so maybe a little intervention would be nice – it’s now in your jurisdiction. If severance is an issue, then arrange it so that it can be clawed back out of EI once the negotiations are concluded. But please, do something. This isn’t about your party’s detached position but about human justice, ostensibly offered to every worker who has paid into the system. I want to say more on this but I’ll close with noting that by refusing to visit the workers on the line with all the other politicians, the Conservative MPs turned it into a partisan issue.

The worker’s line doesn’t go away. They will be out there tomorrow, and the next, and the next, and the next until people who have worked hard all their lives get the very benefits they paid into. So we as citizens have a further opportunity to stand in solidarity with them, knowing now the true nature of Caterpillar’s intentions. This is a beachhead. Of course we want firms to invest here, but if you want to just pack up in leave in such a hard-hearted fashion, then maybe this just isn’t the place. We want your jobs and your investment, but not at the cost of ruined lives at the end of them day.

I have been in discussion with civic and provincial officials today and emergency measures are being put in place to help these workers transition and for the kids to still go to school. The London Food Bank has already met with union officials and stands at the ready to deal with the difficult days ahead.

For a brief period of time my community took on a corporate giant and lost … or did it? I see it now more galvanized than ever before. Our mayor and council have done what they can against incredible odds. People who never knew one another before are now sharing coffee in mid-winter. Citizens are awaking to the need for a new compact between themselves and those firms who seek to operate and make profit in their midst. Everywhere I’m hearing about the need for a new kind of capitalism that values labour and community as much as shareholders and profit. It now becomes the task for all of us to make something of this moment and not to relegate it to history.

But this moment is about these workers. Tomorrow morning (Saturday) at 11, my wife Jane and I will be standing on the line with these very good but hurting folk. Why don’t you come out and join us there? There will be the agony of defeat, to be sure, but somewhere in this community I’m beginning to sense the thrill of victory. We have come together as never before on an issue like this and we must now form and shape something from all this trouble we have been through together. Come tomorrow if you can. Bring a coffee. Shake a hand. Give a hug. Wipe away a tear. And then let’s start to talk about the kind of community we are now ready to build and let’s make it happen. So you there tomorrow – and thank you in advance. Please link to the video below.

Both Ends

In 1800, about 90% of Americans worked on farms; by 1900 it was 41%; today it is slightly under 2%. How times have changed. One would have thought such a dislocation of the workforce would have led to some severe economic trauma. But the opposite was true, as opportunities sprang up in numerous sectors and the country’s manufacturing capacity skyrocketed. In other words, society was capable of adjustment at a remarkable rate.

Today we are experiencing the opposite. Those losing jobs in places like Electro Motive in London, Ontario aren’t in the process of transitioning to other employment opportunities that are leading to higher standards of living. Their most likely option, should they have to find other work, will be in a labour environment that is in a process of a race to the bottom.

This change now appears to be occurring so dramatically that society’s leaders feel nonplussed as to how to adapt and cope. And so they opt for most unimaginative of ways to act: going hand in hand to international firms in hopes they’ll settle in their respective communities. This is part of their job and they carry it out with diligence, but it does bring to our cities the same kind of temporary, low-wage mindset that we’ve been struggling with in the first place. In reality, and people are often loathe to admit it, much of the present political thinking is overly influenced by such an outlook. As economist Daron Acemoglu put it: “Economic power tends to beget political power even in democratic and pluralistic societies. This tends to work through campaign contributions and access to politicians that wealth and money tend to buy. This political channel implies another, potentially more powerful and distortionary link between inequality and a non-level playing field.”

This ongoing and painful emergence of capital over labour is actually dividing our communities, leaving them increasingly poor in the process as even senior levels of government-run out of funds to assist local constituencies. The present corporate mindset continues to talk about the market and how it provides opportunity for all. But, seriously, that only happens for those who have the resources upon which to build their future. Children in poverty, as an obvious example, get less nutrition, healthcare and education. Where’s the opportunity for them? What’s equal about that construct?

A very good friend and businessman said to me yesterday, “Glen, you know that we are only talking about 3% of these corporations that are causing these problems?” I actually don’t know the exact amount, but why quibble; most corporations have CSR policies and seek to help their respective communities. But if that is true, how then did we get into the situation we are now, where 1% control not only so much of the wealth, but the political influence as well. The irony of citizens looking to their own communities as a result of their disillusionment with governments while at the same time their respective regions can hold fewer and fewer resources is painful to consider.

True, the Great Recession which yet lingers forced times of transition upon us with remarkable speed. Yet the economic system was already at the 99-1 measure before the hard times emerged. To underscore the urgency before us is the reality that the elite 1% now controls more of the wealth than just three years ago. The recession prompted governments to bail out the larger corporations, thereby leaving the public purse even more in debt and unable to respond the social fallout of tough economic times.

Our greatest problem at present is not so much the present financial order as it is our almost complete fatal outlook that this is just the way it is and that we have to get by with less. That “deer in the headlights” myopia only speeds up the transition to elite control.

Let’s break out of the confining outlook and consider what our societies might look like if corporatism was brought in as a true community partner as opposed a superpower invading all the little Grenada-like communities across this country. How would we bring it about? Could we bring it about? How might we commence the process of renewing our communities by permitting capitalism to acquire its profits without such full control? How can we convince the corporate community that they are killing off their future customers in our cities the more money they retain exclusively to themselves and their shareholders? These are good questions and it’s time we seriously applied ourselves to them instead of offering only blind acceptance.

Capitalism has altered dramatically, from the historical form which manufactured products to meet essential demands of consumers who made their desires known through what was on the market, to the present in which desires themselves are manufactured by advertising and the spinning of products in an endless supply of consumerism. It’s not about supply and demand anymore; it’s just the opposite, as we demand more and more products to satiate our appetites. How do we curtail this madness? It won’t be easy, but how’s the present system going for us? Surely there’s something better – ideas to not only save our communities but to rescue capitalism from its most debased instincts.

This penchant we have for endless production and endless consumption is burning the candle at both ends – it’s futility on a manic scale. We need capitalism, but now we need dedicated citizens to help it reform itself. Let’s consider how that might look …

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