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Reflections on a Labour Day

Posted on Sep 6, 2016

This is an article I wrote a few years ago for a publication issued by the National Union of Public and General Employees. I don’t think they’ll mind if I re-issue it several Labour Days later.

FIGHTING THE NEW FEUDALISM 

by Silver Donald Cameron

We are the wealthiest people in the history of the world. So how can it be that at the feet of the cold glass and steel towers of the financial district, a ragged man – having eaten at a soup kitchen or a food bank – curls up to sleep under a blanket of newspapers over a warm exhaust grill?

Let me tell you a story about a country I once knew.

In that country, sixty years ago, food banks and soup kitchens were just an unhappy memory from the Dirty Thirties, when the police protected the rich, the factories lay idle, and dust storms drove the farmers off the land. Starving men clung to boxcars, willing to trade a day’s work just for a day’s food. But the Dirty Thirties led into a war, and the bums and vagrants were suddenly transformed into brave soldiers and sailors. The factories re-opened, spewing out tanks and guns and planes, while a torrent of innovation yielded radar and reactors, plastics and  jet engines, electronic navigation, antibiotics and computers.

The hoboes and drifters who had become infantrymen and airmen went out and won the war. And when they came home, they remembered the hunger and hopelessness of the Dirty Thirties, and they said, Never again. We did not fight and die to sustain a society that starves and scorns us. The war showed us how a focussed and determined government, supported by its people, could marshall the whole creative power of the country for a common purpose. If we can do that in order to kill other people, we can do it to nourish our own people.

The veterans dreamed of a society with jobs for everyone, a home for everyone, a democracy that would hold the plutocrats in check. They dreamed of innovations like “unemployment insurance” and “family allowances.” They imagined a Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation that would help working families to buy their own homes. They wanted universal old age pensions, a strong and accessible system of higher education, assistance to the blind and the disabled. They dreamed of universal medical care.

And they got those things, all of them. That’s what created the country I grew up in. Its name was Canada.

The institutions that protected and nourished Canadians didn’t come without a fight, but the veterans were never afraid of a fight. They had learned from the Dirty Thirties that industrial capitalism is like fire: a good servant, but a nasty master. They knew that the future is shaped by politics, and that politics is about power. The rich had the power of position and wealth, while the working people and the poor and the disabled had only the power of their passion and their numbers.

But a passionate crowd achieves power only when it’s organized. So the people of postwar Canada organized. They organized political movements and labour unions. They understood that a “working person” is anyone who trades labour for income, and can lose that income if they lose their job. So they didn’t just organize the tradesmen and the labourers in the mines and the mills and the railways. They also organized unions of school teachers and university professors,  nurses and civil servants, actors and airline pilots, screenwriters and policemen. They negotiated livable wages, safe workplaces, pensions, vacations, job security.

The labour movement, one commentator recently noted, provides “the muscle behind progressive politics.”  The political home of labour was a young political party called the Canadian Commonwealth Federation, which stood for a fair deal for all working Canadians. To keep the CCF from power, the parties of the rich vilified the party and then stole its ideas, and found themselves bringing in the very programs that their organized population was demanding.

And so, in that distant country, a society arose in which Canadians cared for one another, provided opportunity to their children,  supported the sick and the weak and the aged. Because they knew all about war, they demanded a foreign policy rooted in peace-keeping and foreign aid, in protecting and caring for other people all over the world.

And the country flourished. Working people don’t hoard their money; they spend it. Because everyone had incomes – even the unemployed, the disabled, the elderly – business boomed.

Yet corporate greed still bared its teeth. In 1970, deep-sea fishermen in Nova Scotia had no job security, no pensions, no vacations. For nine days of mid-winter fishing, fishermen were legally paid as little as $2.01. You read that correctly:  two dollars and one cent. The fishermen did not even have the right to organize. To gain that right, they took on the government, the churches, the courts, the media.  After a long and bitter strike, they won. You can read the story in my book The Education of Everett Richardson.

The fishermen were employed not by local entrepreneurs, but by corporations based in Illinois and England. A transnational corporation is a strange creature. It exists only in our collective imagination. In law it is a person, but it scarcely resembles a person. It has no body and no mind,  no feelings, no family, no loyalties, no conscience. It cares for nothing. It neither feels the wind nor smells the blossoms. It is stateless and immortal. It has plenty of legal rights, but only one legal obligation: it is required to make money for its shareholders. Its ethic is endless growth – the same ethic as a cancer cell.

If flesh persons behaved as these fictional persons do, we would call them psychopaths, and we would lock them up.

In recent years, corporations have again assaulted communities and working families. They bought up the media, endowed business schools at universities, created right-wing think-tanks to construct and spread junk science. They debauched democracy by pouring money into the pockets of lobbyists and legislatures, which dutifully freed them from regulations. They did everything they could to break the unions and to eliminate union jobs.

At the same time, the corporations pushed for trade pacts and “globalization,” for the integration of the world’s national economies into a single, borderless global economy where corporations could operate without any restrictions at all.  So the jobs went offshore, where there are no unions, no child labour laws, no environmental regulations. With predictable results. Asian children work in a toxic soup as they dismantle scrapped electronics. In Uzbekistan, workers are beaten to death for leaving the fields where they harvest cotton to make sneakers for the First World. In Bangladesh, a factory collapses, killing 1100 workers. The corporate commentators shrug. That’s just the way the global market works. That’s how the economy grows.

Call it what it is: a new feudalism. Globalization is not good for you – your community will not be sustained by jobs in Cambodia or Mauritius –  and the fact that “the economy” is doing well doesn’t mean that you are doing well. The Canadian economy has doubled in size in just 35 years, but the income of ordinary Canadian families is stagnant. Between 1998 and 2007, Canada’s economy saw the fastest growth in this generation, but 33% of the additional wealth went to the wealthiest 1% of taxpayers.

“I want my fair share,” says Charles Koch, one of the wealthiest men in the world, “and that’s all of it.”

All social programs are under attack – old age pensions, progressive income taxes, environmental protections, medicare. Unions are pressed to freeze wages, out-source jobs, reduce benefits. Private-sector union membership slowly drifts downward from 21.3% in 1997 to 17.4% in 2011. Nevertheless, a unionized worker, over a lifetime, will earn $600,000 more than a non-unionized one, which makes union membership almost as good an investment as higher education.

The industrialized West is the richest society that has ever existed – probably the richest that ever will exist, given the likelihood of ecological collapse – and we cannot provide for our children the things that my generation took for granted: an education without a crushing debt, a satisfying job with a full range of benefits, an affordable home, safe food and water, clean air. In a country bloated with McMansions, malls and SUVs, our children beg at intersections and squeegee windshields to gain a few scraps of income. In a world in which a billion people are obese, another billion people are skeletal with hunger.

It is still true that politics shapes the future, and that politics is about power. It is still true that a passionate crowd can achieve power through organization. And it is still true that nobody can organize for power better than the labour movement.

We need the labour movement not only to regain what we have lost, but to complete what the postwar generation began. They got us medicare, but we also need pharmacare and daycare.  They got us a patchwork of social programs, but we need a guaranteed annual income. Today we need the unions to lead in assembling an unstoppable coalition of  disenfranchised youth, seniors, marginalized workers, greens, co-op members, health and safety activists, the LGBT community, and above all – and with great sensitivity –  the First Nations.

Occupy and Idle No More demonstrated that Canadians detest the new feudalism. It is our duty to defeat it – for our children, for our fellow citizens, for all the forms of life that inhabit our planet. We know what a better world would look like. Now it’s time to build it.

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