The new economy owns your soul

Sally’s choice was this: either pay the heating bill or fix her car. She chose the car because without it she couldn’t get to work, and if she couldn’t get to work, she wouldn’t be paid. Sally is a personal support worker making $15 an hour after a decade on the job. But today, on one of the coldest days in December, she’s walking the picket line, on strike for a better deal. She’s not sure how long she can afford to do this because, while she’s on the line, she’s making $0 an hour.

Katie’s been working been working for fast food chains for over a 15 years. She’s now the afternoon shift manager at a big multi-national and earning a dollar more than minimum wage. She’s got two children in school and she’s in debt to a pay-day loan company. She tells me she might go back on social assistance. At least that way she’ll be able to see her kids.

April 28, National Day of Mourning for workers killed or injured on the job. 1,000 a year killed in Canada.

Charlie wrecked his back dragging rock out of a limestone quarry. The doctor at the ER said he should rest it for at least 6 weeks. But that’s what’s left of the work season. There’s no union at the quarry, so no benefits, no time off if he’s sick, no one to back him up if his boss tells him to do something dangerous. So he does what he’s done for the last week. He drags himself out of bed, downs an OxyContin with his coffee and waits for his buddy to pick him up.

These are not their real names, but their work is real enough: low wage, part time, temporary work. If you’ve got a family to raise on that kind of work, it’s all guts and no glory. It’s soul crunching. It’s precarious work and it’s a plague that’s spreading. Half the jobs in Toronto are precarious. Almost 95% of the jobs created in Canada in 2013 were part time, filled, more than likely by workers over the age of 55.  Part time jobs suit some people. But that doesn’t mean they’re good jobs.

Good jobs, the kind of jobs that give you a middle class income, benefits, the protection of a union—those jobs have skipped town along with the companies that paid for them. Some think those kinds of jobs will never return. The Wall Street Journal thinks that. Temporary work in the US has nearly doubled and that includes manufacturing jobs. Good for employers, lousy for workers.

Politicians point fingers. It’s what they do. They point them at one another mostly, but over the last few years they’ve been pointing them at unions. But if they checked their history, they would discover that it was unions that helped shrink the yawning economic gap between those who had it all and those who didn’t.

Membership in private sector unions has shrunk from around 70% to about 30%. Not coincidentally, inequality has risen, back to the level it was in the Roaring ‘20s—the last hurrah of what Mark Twain called “the Gilded Age” of the robber barons JP Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and John D Rockefeller.

Eighty-six people in Canada hold more wealth than our poorest 11 million. That’s dangerous. Researchers in the UK, have found that as inequality in a society rises, so do social and health problems—overcrowded prisons, obesity, diabetes, teen pregnancies, shorter life spans, social distrust. They rise or fall not with the degree of poverty or wealth of a nation, but with the degree of inequality in a nation.

Income Inequality, Late 2000s (chart)

Working-Age Poverty Rate, Late 2000s (chart)

The Conference Board of Canada gives us a ‘C’ on equality. Out of 17 similar economies, we are 12th, just ahead of Japan but behind Ireland and France and way behind Denmark.

But the most telling statistic is our rank in the world on working-age poverty. We are third from the bottom. Canada, along with Japan and the US have the highest rates of working-age poor—higher that Italy, Ireland, France and 11 other countries. Ours is not a healthy economy.

And neither are we. Doctors are seeing the impact in their clinics. Over half of us are over weight or obese, one in five has hypertension, well over half do not or cannot afford to eat properly. When you’re tired out, stressed out and tapped out, that $1 bag of french fries looks a lot better than a $5 bag of apples.

The UN is right—Canada does have a food security problem. Because we have an income security problem.

PBS Frontline: Two American Families

A US study takes, as a measure of financial fragility, whether a household can come up with $2,000 in 30 days. That’s another feature of precarious work: you have very little wiggle room. $2000 is a car repair or a medical bill away from fiscal ruin and 50% of Americans are there.

Thank God and Tommy Douglas for Canadian health care. The trouble is all those frozen fries and chicken nuggets might be cheap at No Frills, but they’ll catch up to you eventually.

Pointing fingers (unless you’re in front of a mirror) is never a useful exercise. Let’s do it anyway. Let’s point them at the service industry where most of the new jobs are going.

McDonald’s strike 2013

McDonald’s says if it raised its employees’ wages so they could actually live on them, it would have to charge $20 for a Big Mac. And yet, in Australia, where the minimum wage is over $16 an hour, Big Macs are only six cents more.

McDonald’s workers in the US who are having trouble living on their McWage can phone the McResource hotline. There someone will explain how to apply for food stamps and Medicaid.

How McDonald’s helped its US employees get by. The McDonald’s PracticalMoneySkills.com site (brought to you by VISA) has since been taken down.

The chain is only one of many companies that off-load their operating costs onto the public purse. Food banks and our universal health care system obscure the public cost of precarious work in Canada but, in the US, big fast food costs US taxpayers some $7 billion every year.

Big box retail is just as bad. What they pay, even for full-time work, leaves their employees below the poverty line. Do you know what it would take for the chains to raise their employees and their families (some 3 million people in North America) out of poverty? Thirty-six cents.

Yup, 36¢ more per shopper per basket would do it. I don’t know about you, but I’d be happy to pay a bit extra every shopping trip if Walmart and Target and Canadian Tire put my 36 cents into the pockets of their employees.

In the US, Walmart does a brisk trade in food stamps (now called SNAP—Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The chain nets about 18% of all food stamp dollars, worth about $14 billion.

We’ve created a new class of service employee, one whose wages are so low they can’t afford to shop anywhere but where they work. Reminds me of that old song from the Dirty 30’s Johnny Cash used to sing: “ … and what do you get? / Another day older and deeper in debt. / Saint Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store.”

© David McLaren, April 2014
A version of this article appeared in Sunmedia papers, April 18, 2014

 

Are there answers? You bet. Here are some:

  • Communities, even ones with depressed economies, come with cash for food banks and open kitchens.
  • Volunteers build homes for Habitat for Humanity.
  • The United Way keeps track of people and miraculously finds money to help out with people’s utility bills. (eg, Bruce-Grey)
  • Public Health Units adopt healthy communities strategies (eg, Grey-Bruce).
  • Provincial governments could raise the minimum wage to a living wage which, in Ontario is between $15 and $16 an hour depending on where you live. The impact on small business can be countered with tax breaks or wage subsidies.
  • Large corporations could pay their employees more, as the Harvard Business Review points out. QuickTrip in the US pays their entry-level employees an annual wage of $40,000 with benefits.
  • Some cities, recognizing the benefits of higher wages, are looking at passing bylaws forcing corporations in their jurisdiction to pay their employees a living wage.
  • Increase corporate taxes. Corporations in Canada are sitting on nearly $600 billion of what Mark Carney, the former head of the Bank of Canada, called “dead money.” There is no evidence that lowering corporate taxes creates jobs. Canada has had one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the G7 for over a decade and we’ve been shedding jobs since 2000. The Harvard Business Review reports on a study showing a 10% increase in the corporate tax rate yields a 2.1% drop in unemployment.
  • Resist fettering unions. Unions have been part of the capitalist system for over 100 years and have proven effective in helping to redistribute income for a more equitable society. Why right-to-work-poor legislation is wrong.
  • Resist austerity. If people can’t buy they can’t help the economy (60% of ours depends on Canadians buying things). Austerity lowers GDPs.
  • Move subsidies to foreign-owned gas and oil (about $800 per Canadian per year) to local and regional manufacturing (preferably innovative tech jobs).
  • Make job creation a contractual condition of subsidies and hold companies to the contract—also a recommendation of Ontario’s Drummond Report. Industry ignored job commitments after Canada and Ontario shelled out $1.3 billion between 2004 and 2008.

 

Ignore the ideology. Get the facts:

 

 

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Ford Nation screwed blued and tattooed.

It is an easy thing to dismiss Ford Nation.

Rob Ford Bobblehead

Here’s how Jeffery Simpson does it in the Globe and Mail: “[They and their leaders] prefer to lecture rather than reason, to posture as … the “people” against undefined but dangerous “elites,” and live in an intellectually self-contained world where curiosity is banished and slogans take the place of deliberation.”

And he goes on: they’re tough on crime, yet revel in the Mayor’s misdeeds. They vote for fiscal prudence, yet support his imprudent and expensive Scarborough subway. They insist on personal responsibility, but let their own off the hook.

To the elites, they are a mess of contradictions and political incorrectness. If he wasn’t an enemy of the state of Ford Nation before, he is now.

You can hear the disdain, even in pollsters’ numbers: they earn in the lower regions of the 99% and almost half don’t graduate high school. They’re young (18-34) or old (over 55), and they live to the north and east in Toronto and here and there in rural Ontario.

They account for 16% of Rob Ford’s support—and Tim Hudak’s and Stephen Harper’s.

Mike Harris, with his “Common Sense Revolution” was the first conservative to court them. Stephen Harper has made a science of them. Rob Ford is them.

Ford Nation loves it when their guys do things that aren’t elite-like: smoking crack cocaine for example, or squabbling with the liberal press, or being in contempt of Parliament. (Remember the Tory line? “It’s just the opposition playing politics.”)

Never mind their contrarieties. Ford Nation will stay strong as long as the PM disrespects Parliament and the Mayor fights City Hall.

But what will happen when the Nation figures out they’re being used? Not just used, but screwed, blued and tattooed.

I can hear my friend Dennis from here. “Whoa there buddy! You trying to tell us how to vote now?”

“No,” I say, “The Government has robo-calls for that.”

“Ahh, that’s just politics. You don’t have the sense God gave a hockey puck, do you? It’s business that creates jobs, not government. Government needs to get out of the way and conservatives do that best.”

Well my friend, that might have been true once. But the corporate fix is in. Reagan Republicans started getting government out of the way in the 1980s. And in 2008, workers mired in right-to-work-poor states watched as Wall Street took the bit in its teeth and ran away with the economy of the Western World.

Meanwhile, back home in Canada, Mr Harper doubled down on Mr Martin’s massive corporate tax cuts. Now we have the lowest corporate tax rate in the G7, most new jobs are part time, and companies in Canada have a stash of cash worth $600 billion.

What’s in your wallet, Dennis?

And do you know what business whispers into the perky ears of your current Finance Minister? “We want more of the same and screw the workers.”

The oil patch might be booming, but Ontario is not. Big oil and gas gets almost $3 billion a year in subsidies from the federal government. That’s helped create over 50,000 jobs out west and that’s a good thing. Except our high petro-dollar has sent some 140,000 manufacturing jobs AWOL.

Yes, there are jobs out there, but most are poor paying McJobs. The good, solid jobs that take workers into the middle class have gone south—literally.

Harper at Caterpillar, London ON

Mr Harper had himself a nice photo-op at the Caterpillar plant in London, but he was MIA when the business gave 500 Ontario workers the bum’s rush and made off like a bandit for right-to-work-poor Indiana. Along with jobs, the company took all the R&D Caterpillar workers locked outCaterpillar claws back wagesCanadians paid for through government “innovation” subsidies.

Who did the government blame? The workers, for wanting to hold on to their middle class wages.

Sort of reminds me—right down to blaming the unions—of the disappearing act Mr Fantino did on vets who wanted to talk to him about closing veterans’ offices. Ford Nation’s government is heavy on the gung-ho when it’s off to war we go. And every November 11, it wraps itself in flag and family to remember the dead. But there’s no remembering if you come back alive and hurting.

And yet, for all their contrariness and willingness to vote for ideology over their own interests, we must not dismiss Ford Nation. For its citizens carry the hard seed of those who came to Canada to fill this so-called “empty land”—gritty Presbyterian Scots and Catholic Irish forced out of their own homelands by the Clearances and the potato famines.

Righteous, rough and rebellious, with names like MacKenzie, McGee, and Macdonald, Murdoch, McLaren and Mann. A bloody-minded bunch they were, especially toward those who had a prior claim to the land.

Sure Canadians are courteous, in the old English and French sense of that word: courtly, truthful, skilled in diplomacy and debate.

But we are also hockey hardened SOBs who were first up the hill in two World Wars, kept the peace in Cyprus and fought the Taliban in the hairiest parts of Afghanistan.

So Dennis, this one’s for you. But please, come election day, take care where you mark your X.

© David McLaren, March 2014
A version of this article appeared in Sunmedia papers, April 12, 2014

 

Rob Ford Die Hard

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The Ladies on the Line

It’s friggin’ freezing out here on the picket line, and I’m not dressed for it. Happily a lot of cars are honking their support for the strikers and that’s warms the heart at least. But the hot chocolate I brought along for the women is cooling quickly and my toes have gone numb. Still, it’s hard to turn away from the stories the personal support workers are telling me.

Sally says she is now in debt because she had to make a choice. Either pay the heating bill or fix her car. She chose the car because without it she couldn’t get to work and if she couldn’t get to work, she wouldn’t be paid. Sally works as a personal support worker making just over $15 an hour after a decade on the job. But today, one of the coldest days of December, she’s walking the picket line, on strike for a better deal. She’s not sure how long she can afford to do this because, while she’s on the line, she’s making $0 an hour.

I hear about the woman some of them helped get through a tough time. She was just  divorced and struggling to finish the Personal Support Workers  course at the local college—something she had to do before she could earn a paycheque. She was renting a poorly heated trailer that the owner wouldn’t fix.

She survived two bouts of pneumonia and a car that refused to drive in reverse. And she got her certificate. Who says the poor don’t want to work?

Their union, the Service Employees International Union, doesn’t have a lot of money and decent strike pay is out of the question. The women know that and their employer, Red Cross Care Partners, knows it too and will try to wait them out. In the meantime, the women fret about the people the company is sending around to tend to their clients.

Allowing employers to hire replacement workers is a nasty piece of union busting legislation passed by Mike Harris’ Common Sense government in Ontario and kept by the Liberals.

But it’s not the fact that replacement workers will break their strike that has these women worried. It’s whether they are treating their clients well. Here they are, going numb from hours on the picket line, worrying more about their patients than whether they’ll have the money to pay this month’s rent.

Many of the women I meet are closing in on senior-hood themselves. We have to put aside the notion that people in part time or low wage work are young and in it for experience and pocket change. Some of the ladies on the line have been working with “their clients” for over 20 years. For them an increase in pay is more than a living wage; it is a sign of respect for their professionalism.

After all, they’ve completed a course at a community college and put in 500 hours of supervised work in the field or a nursing home. Before they are hired they must be checked out by the police. Their union provides additional training and, through the grievance process, helps both workers and employers to conduct themselves with respect.

For the ladies on the line, personal service work is a profession. But you’d never know it by the way they’re treated.

The top of the wage scale is $15.02 an hour—even after 25 years. That’s tough when a living wage—what you need to survive in most of Ontario is $15.25. They must work 1,352 hours every year to get and hold onto their benefit package. That’s not always possible if clients are admitted to hospital, or pass on. Even with benefits, there is no sick pay – they must use their vacation time, and file a report saying that they are ill and how long they plan to stay ill.

They get $.34 a km when they travel, using their own car which they must maintain and gas up. Their $15.02 an hour doesn’t even kick in until they’re in the door of a client.

Once in the door, they do a lot more than wash dishes and prepare meals. They check and treat bed sores. They make sure people are taking their medications. They may have to use lifts in order to assist in bathing or mobility. They check catheters and colostomies and clean those areas to prevent infection. They clean the incontinent. They feed those with dementia, and those who have lost the use of their limbs, and those in palliative care.

To add insult to injury, personal support workers are the rock on which Ontario’s new health care system is built. It’s on their backs that the government is saving millions every years by keeping people out of acute and chronic care beds.

Hours on the road that don’t count for pay, “clients” that test their strength and patience, keeping people in their homes and out of more expensive care—and what do they get? Poverty wages and disrespect.

Update, March 2014

Before the strike was over, some of the workers had to go back to work because they were falling into debt. The dispute went to arbitration and they came out with a 2.4% raise over three years (less than 1% a year) and two cents more per kilometre for travel. The arbitrator simply followed the pattern set for all public service employees—whether they are professors, lawyers, nurses, doctors—or workers whose paycheque are already shorter than the month.

For more information:
Service Employees International Union: http://www.seiuhealthcare.ca/
Personal Support Workers are cheap labour
Current campaign: Sweet $ixteen

 

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Lament for a Nation – Canada’s slide into colonialism

A version of this essay appeared in Sunmedia papers, April 20, 2013.

On Wednesday November 27th, John Baird officially redefined Canada to the world as a corporate shill.

Prime Minister Harper told Ed Fast, the Minister of International Trade after the 2011 election that he wanted Canadian foreign policy to focus on foreign trade. The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development’s new Global Markets Action Plan is the result of that order. But it isn’t all that new—it’s been developing ever since Bev Oda scrawled “NOT” on CIDA’s funding approval letter to KAIROS.

Actually it’s been developing a lot longer than that.

In 1965, George Grant published Lament for a Nation. In his eulogy for a sovereign Canada, he argues the Liberals got and held power by merging their political policies with the ambitions of corporate North America: “Liberalism is the perfect ideology for capitalism … even the finest talk about internationalism opens markets for the powerful.”

For Professor Grant, John Diefenbaker was the last Canadian nationalist. Yes, he cancelled the Avro Arrow, a fighter jet ahead of its time. It was too expensive to build, largely because the US refused to buy any. But when the US pushed the Bomarc missile on him, he refused to arm them with nuclear warheads.

It was a move mocked by the Liberals under “Mike” Pearson and booed by Bay Street. In the “Defence Election” of 1963, Dief was out and Mike was in. The Americans were happy and President Kennedy promptly sent over nuclear warheads for the Bomarcs.

Mr Pearson was an internationalist, and not just at the UN. What was good for GM was good for America—and Canada too, once Mike signed the Auto Pact. A few years later Pierre Trudeau yoked external affairs with international trade.

Brian Mulroney knew which way the corporate winds were blowing in the 1980s and promoted a Free Trade Agreement with the US. Guess who won the “Free Trade Election” of 1988?

The Liberals never again made the mistake of opposing international trade. In fact Jean Chretien embraced it and expanded it and renamed the Department that led it, Foreign Affairs and International Trade. He began signing free trade agreements with anyone with a pulse.

Mr Harper has gone several better than Mr Chretien. Since first elected in 2006, his government has entered into negotiations for over 50 Free Trade Agreements and Foreign Investment Protection and Promotion Agreements (FIPAs for short), including the ill-considered China FIPA.

For someone who hates the Liberal brand as much as Stephen Harper does, it’s intriguing to watch him follow with such gusto the old Liberal agenda.

Our new trade partners include Mali, Tanzania, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama, and a whole lot of others. At this point in time, with our manufacturing sector in tatters, you have to wonder what it is we make that anyone wants to buy. Well, Columbia (one of the most violent countries in the world, especially if you’re a union leader) is buying shipments of high-capacity magazine assault weapons from us, even though they’re banned in Canada. That deal was inked by John Baird the day before 26 children and teachers were shot to death in Newtown Connecticut. And we’re still selling asbestos (also banned in Canada) to anyone foolish or desperate enough to buy it.

These countries have no serious investments in Canada. But our mining companies have billions invested in them.

It’s no secret that trouble dogs the heels of Canadian mining companies operating in the third world. A Tanzanian organization of lawyers claims 19 villagers were killed by Barrick Gold’s security guards and police between 2009 and 2010. In Papua New Guinea, Barrick has been obliged to institute a remediation program for women raped by the company’s security guards. HudBay Minerals Inc is being sued by the Maya in a Canadian court on charges of murder, gang-rape and assault.

Similar crimes, or if not crimes then popular opposition, are cropping up around Canadian mining operations in Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, Honduras, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mongolia. According to Amnesty International, “Colombia’s Constitutional Court has identified 34 Indigenous nations that are in grave danger of extinction, amidst armed conflict that has been used as a cover for appropriation of their resource-rich lands.”

The FTAs and FIPAs Canada signs with these countries are making thing worse. Amnesty International fears the Canada-Colombia FTA could “fuel or contribute to grave human rights violations against those living in areas of economic interest.”

There are no provisions in these agreements for prior consultation with groups most affected. Clauses prohibiting expropriation of any kind and protecting investment so favour corporations that it is very difficult for a third world country to buck the wishes of a Canadian-owned mining company.

Some agreements (the Canada-Colombia FTA for example) even oblige the host country to indemnify mining companies against political unrest. And if a nation passes legislation to protect the health and environment of its citizens it might find itself in a trade tribunal and on the hook for millions, even billions, of dollars in compensation (as did Canada when, in 1997, we banned a toxic gas additive called MMT made in the US).

We need to ask, as George Grant did in 1965, what should we lament? Well, our good regard in the world for one. But it’s more serious than that.

Mr Harper’s government has defunded or disbanded experienced non-government organizations with good contacts in other countries and a track record of solid development work. To take their place in the sensitive world of foreign aid and development, the Tories are hiring evangelical Christian organizations such as World Vision and Crossroads Christian Communications.

Among other works, World Vision helps people in the first world sponsor children in the third. On its website: “We are members of an international World Vision Partnership that transcends legal, structural, and cultural boundaries.”

Crossroads Christian Communications is a registered charity that also produces the TV show 100   Huntley Street. The “category” on their Canada Revenue Agency detail page is “Missionary Organizations and Propagation of Gospel.”

For me, if not for George Grant, there is nothing inherently wrong with mixing international trade with foreign policy. Unless it’s reeking with missionaries, rape, murder and predatory resource extraction.

If we didn’t have a colonial history before, we sure do now.

© David McLaren, April 2013

Conflict Gold: The statue towers over the main square of Segovia, Antioquia, one of the principal mining centers of Colombia. Segovia is the site of countless acts of violence in the past and a current, festering conflict between the traditional miners of the region and the Canadian multinational, Gran Colombia Gold Corp.

Conflict Gold: The statue towers over the main square of Segovia, Antioquia, one of the principal mining centers of Colombia. Segovia is the site of countless acts of violence in the past and a current, festering conflict between the traditional miners of the region and the Canadian multinational, Gran Colombia Gold Corp.

Conflict Gold in Columbia

Segovia and the area around the town has been one of Columbia’s gold mining operations since the time of the Maya. Gold was the catalyst of their destruction by the Spanish and it continues to be at the root of current conflicts. Left-wing rebel groups (FARC and the ELN) are both financing their battles with the government with gold.

In November 1988, a right-wing paramilitary group, with Columbian police and army watching, drove into Segovia and massacred 43 people and wounded 50 more.

The Caldas department of Columbia is another ancient mining centre. In 1946 the government set aside an area in the hills around Marmato for the many artisan miners in the town.  In 2007 the Canadian mining company Medoro Resources acquired a Columbian company to form Gran Columbia Gold and proposed to demolish the town and strip mine the gold.

The townspeople resisted, led by the local priest, José Reynal-Restrepo. However, in the summer of 2011 Gran Columbia told Reynal that the Archbishop had sold the church’s property in Marmato. In August, Fr Reynal left for Bogota to confirm the story.

That same month, August 2011, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Bogata to meet with Columbian President Manuel Santos on the eve of their free trade agreement  (signed in 2008) coming into effect.

In his speech, the Prime Minister said that Columbia had come a long way. “Colombia is a wonderful country with great possibilities and great ambition, and we need to be encouraging that every step of the way.” When asked about threats to human rights, he said, “We can’t block the progress of a country like this for protectionist reasons, and you trying to use human rights as a front for doing that.”

On his way back from Bogota, on September 1, 2011, as he approached Marmato on his motorbike, Fr Reynal was shot to death.

Unrest in Segovia continues. In the summer of 2013, the “agrarian strike” embraced a wide range of people: teachers, labour unions, farmers. Among their varied demands are an end to the government’s crackdown on small miners and the cancellation of free trade agreements.

More to the story …

Violentology, a Manual of the Columbian Conflict (a TIME light-box feature): http://lightbox.time.com/2012/10/09/violentology-stephen-ferry-documents-the-colombian-conflict/#end

In Columbia, New Gold Rush Fuels Old Conflict, New York Times, March 3, 2011:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/04/world/americas/04colombia.html?ref=colombia&_r=0

The National Catholic Reporter carried a report on “The Assassination of Fr José Reynal Restrepo, however it has been removed and this note, dated September 30, 2011, is in its place: “Today After receipt of objections on behalf of Gran Columbia Gold Corp., we have taken down a column by Fr. John Dear, ‘The Assassination of Fr. José Reynal Restrepo’ pending further investigation.”

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Are unions the key to happiness?

This post is a bit of a mash-up. Three radio commentaries follow a provocative article by Hanns Skoutajan on the link between economic equality and a peaceful spirit. If the authors of The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone are correct, then perhaps unions are part of the solution.

Happy and Equal

Hanns Skoutajan

Are you happy? A recent poll of some 130 countries has placed Canada in 6th place of happiness.  Number one is Denmark. Having visited the famous TivoliGardens in Copenhagen, which opened in 1843, with its amusement park of great rides and eating and drinking places I can vouch that Danes are a happy people, particularly their children. But that is not the only or primary reason  for the Danish being in first place in happiness or for any of the people in the top 5.

In The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett make the point that egalitarian societies are invariably happier people. And Denmark, and indeed all of the Scandinavian countries, are societies that stand out as free and equal.

Our neighbour, the people of the United States, have ebbed and are now far down the line of happiness, 16th, along with Greece, Spain, Portugal  and Italy. When compared with Canadians, who share so much with our southern cousins, the US who prides itself for its freedom and democratic ethos, is nevertheless a far less egalitarian society.

“If the United States  was to reduce its income inequality to something like the average of the four most equal rich countries ( Japan, Norway, Sweden and Finland)  the proportion of the population feeling they could trust others might rise by 75%…. rates of mental illness and obesity  might similarly be cut by almost two thirds, teenage birth rates could be more than halved, prison populations might be reduced by 75% and people would live longer  while working the equivalent of two months less a year.” So argue the authors of the Spirit Level. Equality and the resultant happiness affect every facet of our lives.

Inequality exacerbates health & social problemsSurely it is a worthwhile goal to aim for, rather than following slavishly  in the footsteps of our neighbour.  We are a happier people precisely because we have been less successful in building as unequal a society as has America. We are, however, well on the way of adopting and emulating their ways.

The United States prides itself as being a beacon of democracy for the whole world, in Biblical language “a city on a hill” and indeed many throughout the world still admire the United States and would give anything to live there. Unfortunately many who have  immigrated have found it a less than happy experience.

Milton Friedman, of the famous Chicago School of Economics, the prophet of capitalism, admitted that he was not fond of democracy.  He states “one of the things that troubles me  very much is that I believe a relatively free economy is a necessary condition for a democratic society. But I also believe that a democratic society, once established , destroys a free economy.”

For Friedman and his disciples, many of them in Canada, a free economy trumps a free society. In that economy the gap between the rich  and the middle class, to say nothing of the poor, has spread exponentially over the last thirty years.

Writing in the CCPA Monitor, the monthly publication of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is an article by Joseph Stiglitz, a former chief economist of the World Bank, that states that “The International community must face reality. We have an unmanageable, unfair, distortionate global tax system that is pivotal  in creating the increasing inequality that marks most advanced countries today.”

In the same issue Murray Dobbin,  a BC-based writer on economic, social  and political issues writes, “Capital in its drive for complete freedom from community and society, has outsmarted itself.  In  Canada the largest corporations are now sitting on some $700 billion that they can’t invest in productive activity because demand  for their products by cash-strapped consumers has flattened, 7% of them are unemployed and 14% of youth are unable to find jobs.

Nevertheless advertising continues to dangle goods before the eyes of consumers who can acquire them only as they max-out their credit cards and live in deep and unrelenting debt.

The result is an unhappy society, a divided citizenry estranged from  one another by their inequality. They have become beholden to the powers of mega corporations many of whom have jettisoned their Canadian work force in favour of cheap labour in third world countries.

What is required, Wilkinson and Pickett affirm is “a society which knows where it wants to go…. coupled with the urgent task  of dealing with global warming. In all these settings we must speak out and explain the advantages of a more equal society.”  and thus  a happier people. It can be done, indeed it has been achieved in those countries that precede us in the happiness poll. They are a measure of the possible.

I encourage you to read the above quoted book, The Spirit Level as well as subscribe and read  the CCPA Monitor to become people  who are informed and value democracy  and equality more than did Milton Friedman.

© Hanns F Skoutajan, September 2013.

A Footnote on Friedman

Alan Greenspan gets US Medal of Freedom 2005

Alan Greenspan gets US Medal of Freedom 2005

One of his acolytes, Alan Greenspan was Chairman of the US Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006. He takes his philosophy from Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged who advocated a rapacious individualism. In testimony before the US Senate in 1997, Greenspan stated that growing worker insecurity is a significant factor keeping inflation and inflation expectation low, thereby promoting long term investment.

He was named by Time Magazine as one of the architects of the 2008 Recession. In October 2008, he confessed to another Congressional hearing that his faith in the unseen and unregulated hand of the market had perhaps been misplaced …
“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity – myself especially – are in a state of shocked disbelief.”
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) asked him for clarification: “In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working.”
Alan Greespan replied, “Absolutely, precisely.”

CFOS Owen Sound Commentaries

I first wrote about the Great Income Gap on this site on July 2011 with “Dohconomics: how to turn a doughnut economy into a feudal society.” Since then, more and more studies are pointing out the link between falling middle class incomes and falling union membership. The following were broadcast over the summer of 2013.

June 10, 2013

So, we got to have our booze and drink it too over the May-24 weekend. But what did LCBO workers get? A small signing bonus ($400 for most), a modest 1.9% wage increase and a promise to create more full-time jobs.

What most people don’t realize, and what the media did not report, is that this strike was about part-time work. Over 60% of LCBO workers across the Province earn relatively little and receive even fewer benefits. They are on-call with two hours notice, their hours can be changed on a whim and they take home a wage that, for a family of three, hovers around the poverty line.

This is a precarious existence and it has become a North American scourge. Fully half the workers in Toronto are part time. That suits the bottom line of their employers—for one thing they don’t have to pay into OHIP. No wonder the LCBO, last year made a profit in excess of $1½ billion.

No wonder food banks are running out of food—more people are using them to make ends meet. No wonder the economy is stalling—who can afford to buy stuff when you’re living pay cheque to pay cheque? Job numbers might be up, but the economy is not.

If big box stores would roll up their prices just a little so that we paid 15 cents more every shopping trip, they could raise over a million people in the US and Canada out of poverty.

Fifteen cents. But they won’t do it. That leaves workers but one choice—unionize.

June 24, 2013

Most liquor store workers are part-time. Most of the folks behind the counter at your favourite fast food joint are part-time. Many “associates” in the local big box stores are part-time. All are at, or just above, minimum wage. Great for high school students. Not so great if you’re trying to raise a family.

Not so great for the rest of us either. Part-time means employers don’t have to pay into OHIP. About 60% of the Canadian economy and 70% of the American relies on people buying stuff. You can’t spend what you don’t have.

But wait, here’s a report of hotel workers getting a raise. Chamber maids, bell-hops, kitchen staff … all full time … all earning more than $50,000 a year, plus vacation time, sick leave and benefits. In New   York City no less. That’s a middle class life in a country split by the largest gap between rich and poor since the Great Depression.

What do they have that you don’t? A union. And a good one at that. Since 1938 Local 6 of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union has been backing employees in some of the swankiest hotels and eateries in the Big Apple. When you’ve got someone on your side who can trump the Donald, you know you’re in the game, and I don’t mean penny ante.

As one banquet waiter put it, “The union takes jobs and turns them into professions. It makes better managers out of management. The good ones get better—the bad ones don’t survive.” As it should be.

September 16, 2013

Labour Day in Canada got its start on April 15, 1872 when people marched in support of the Toronto Typographical Union. Its leaders had been jailed for striking to get a 9-hour working day. You see, unions were illegal and strikes were a “criminal conspiracy to disrupt trade.”

It took more strikes, more marches, more jail-time and another 30 years, but finally unions were accepted as part of our capitalist system. Collective bargaining and union contracts became part of the business plan.

As Henry Ford said when he paid his workers the revolutionary wage of $5 a day, capitalism is a contract: companies must pay workers enough to buy what their employers sell. Unions, not government and certainly not Henry Ford, became the best way to enforce that contract.

Middle class income shrinks as union membership declines

But now it’s back to the future. The income gap has become the abyss of inequality it was in the roaring ‘20s. Middle class income has fallen in lock-step with declining union membership.

This is not by choice. Companies and governments on both sides of the border are making it harder and harder for workers to organize. US states that have passed right-to-work-poor legislation are on the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder. And politicians here want to join that race to the bottom, in spite of a World Bank study that shows no relationship between unionization and economic performance.

Looks like unions will have to start over again. Perhaps Unifor will bring today’s workers what they needed in 1872 – strength and solidarity. Looks like they’re going to need it.

© David McLaren 2013

Income Metrics 2012 (Huffington Post)

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Bob Rae steps into the Ring of Fire

I’m looking at a map of northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire. It’s a pretty patchwork of colours in the shape of a crescent moon: deep sea-blue for Freewest Resources, orange for KWG, bright sun-yellow for Probe, grass green for Fancamp, sky-blue for the Freewest/Spider/KWG partnership.

They are some of the thousands of claims staked by mining companies in the Ring of Fire—5,120 square kilometres in the water sheds of Hudson and James Bays and chock full of chromite, nickel, copper and zinc worth well over $100 billion. That’s a sizable chunk of boreal forest, itself a carbon sink of the order of the Amazon rain forest.

Imagine you are on the shore of McFaulds Lake. You’re looking at trees and rock and muskeg—swampland—millions of acres of it. Turn around and you’ll see KWG’s base camp and maybe a drill or two pulling up core samples of chromite.

Well why not? you ask. There’s nothing there. No so. It’s home for everyone from black flies to black bears to First Nations peoples, Cree and Anishinaabek, whose ways of life will be forever altered if and when all those pretty coloured claims become mines.

Some people are growing impatient for those mines. Keith Hobbs, the mayor of Thunder Bay says “Everybody can get rich on this. … We’re tired of hearing, ‘It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.’ It needs to happen.”

Think Ontario’s oil sands. Thunder Bay is Fort McMurray—an analogy Mr Hobbs himself uses.

Everyone, including the Mayor, wants to “do it right.” But doing it right is where everything can go wrong. Mining companies, rightly, want to make a profit. Shareholders, rightly, want a healthy return on their investment. Municipalities want jobs and new infrastructure. The Crown wants royalties (and votes). Environmentalists want to preserve the environment.

First Nations want all these things. They are not opposed to development as long as it doesn’t turn the land inside out. So, they are banking their future on fair and proper consultation.

In making the law on consultation, the Supreme Court of Canada said, done right, it will lead to reconciliation between Canada and Turtle Island. But reconciliation demands accord between peoples of very different cultures and status. And that requires trust where there is none, and a kind of understanding that must go far beyond tolerance, which itself is in short supply. It demands legislative flexibility where the law is becoming more hidebound and ideological. It will take enormous patience from a public impatient with Turtle Island’s impoverished circumstances and First Nations’ demands for relief from those circumstances.

Into this ring of fire walks Bob Rae. He is now the lead negotiator for the Matawa Tribal Council, nine Anishinaabe First Nations in the area most directly impacted by the thousands of claims on the road to becoming mines.

“The elders talk to me of the overwhelming importance of the environment,” he told me in a recent interview, “and their deep concern about the long term challenges resource development will bring to the region. But they are also concerned about the pattern of dependence and despondency that has taken over their communities. They remember the time of making a living on the land. That life is now increasingly difficult.”

Ring of Fire: What's on Table“The question of an adequate and impartial process has to be on the table. Matawa’s concerns about existing processes are a matter of public record. It’s very early days in discussions with the Province, but I’m satisfied that Mr Iacobucci [Ontario’s negotiator] wants the same.”

“The by-products of chromium mining are very hazardous to the environment and to people. We are mindful that the oil sands expansion was allowed by a federal Environmental Assessment in spite of its acknowledgement of environmental degradation.”

And that begs a crucial question: where is the federal Crown? Where’s the Harper Government? “I haven’t heard from the federal government directly,” said Mr Rae. “Our goal right now is to engage the Province. However, from the federal perspective, the EA process has been badly weakened.” 

The feds were last seen opposing Matawa’s attempt to introduce expert evidence during a Judicial Review of the government’s decision to hold a Comprehensive Environmental Assessment on a Cliffs Resources project. That process would exclude effective participation from First Nations. Cliffs (an American chromium mining company) brought a similar motion. Matawa won that round. A decision on the legitimacy of the EA is expected in September.

Bob Rae is probably the best man for the job: smart with the political heft for talks with government, the respect of Canadians, and the support of First Nations people I talked to. As Anishinaabe author and linguist Basil Johnston put it, “His head and his heart are both in the right place.”

Now, I know he’s is not the only one on his side of the table. And I know that the Anishinaabek have a way of mapping out their own path whether we like it or not. Nevertheless, one of those ridiculous old high school football chants has dogged me since our first conversation.

“Rae! Rae! He’s our man. If he can’t do it no one can.”

And that’s what frightens me.

© David McLaren, July 2013
Originally in Sunmedia papers, Forum, 20 July 2013

Abstract for TR-546 – Sodium Dichromate Dihydrate (CASRN 7789-12-0)Toxicology and Carcinogenesis Studies of Sodium Dichromate Dihydrate (CAS No. 7789-12-0) in F344/N Rats and B6C3F1 Mice (Drinking Water Studies)

Chemical Formula: Na2Cr2O• 2H2O  - Molecular Weight: 298.0
Synonyms: Chromic acid; dichromic acid, dihydrate; disodium dichromate dihydrate; chromium VI

Sodium dichromate dihydrate is one of a number of inorganic compounds containing hexavalent chromium (Cr VI) found in drinking water source supplies as a contaminant resulting from various industrial processes including electroplating operations, leather tanning, and textile manufacturing. Because of the lack of adequate experimental data on the toxicity and carcinogenicity of hexavalent chromium ingested orally and because hexavalent chromium has been found in drinking water source supplies, the California Congressional Delegation, the California Environmental Protection Agency, and the California Department of Health Services nominated hexavalent chromium to the National Toxicology Program for study. Results of 3-month toxicity studies in F344/N rats and B6C3F1, BALB/c, and am3-C57BL/6 mice were reported earlier in NTP Toxicty Report 72. In the current study, male and female F344/N rats and B6C3F1 mice were exposed to sodium dichromate dihydrate (greater than 99.7% pure) in drinking water for 2 years.

Conclusions:
Under the conditions of these 2-year drinking water studies, there was clear evidence of carcinogenic activity of sodium dichromate dihydrate in male and female F344/N rats based on increased incidences of squamous cell neoplasms of the oral cavity. There was clear evidence of carcinogenic activity of sodium dichromate dihydrate in male and female B6C3F1 mice based on increased incidences of neoplasms of the small intestine (duodenum, jejunum, or ileum).

Exposure to sodium dichromate dihydrate resulted in histiocytic cellular infiltration in the liver, small intestine, and pancreatic and mesenteric lymph nodes of rats and mice and diffuse epithelial hyperplasia in the small intestine of male and female mice.

 Link to the full study report in PDF.

Also …

Previous Post, February 2013: http://jdavidmclaren.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/mordor-on/

Matawa First Nations Tribal Council: http://www.matawa.on.ca/

Impacts of mining on First Nations’ health: www.pimatisiwin.com/online/?page_id=147

Maps:

Ring of Fire (from CBC) Ring of Fire fr KWG

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Jesus & Margaret

In April 2013, about the time Jesus wandered homeless, shooed from church to church, Margaret Thatcher died. Two dots, when connected, tell a tale of the times …

And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests;
but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. 
— John 9:58

We do not live in ordinary time.

By the measure of the Catholic Calendar we are still in the Easter Season. After the Crucifixion but before His ascension into Heaven, Christ walks among us.

We do not live in ordinary time even by our secular measure.

Some of us kill and maim others of us with home-made bombs as we go about our day. Some of us kill and maim others of us with remote-control bombs and, when help arrives for us, another drone kills more of us. Some of us are full of fear from others of us and would put us in prison. Some of us would torture us.

At least 20 of us within the sound of my voice are without a home tonight—some 5,000 of us in Toronto. This, even as others of us cut funding to housing and shelters, in our name.

No, these are not ordinary times. They are profane times.

A time when two prominent churches—St Michael’s in Toronto and St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City—refuse to house Jesus the Homeless.

An Ontario artist, Timothy Schmalz, as a meditation on Matthew 25, has created a life-sized figure lying down and huddled under a thin blanket. The bronze face is hidden, but not the feet, pierced by the nails of the Crucifixion. A place was found for Jesus the Homeless, finally, on a bench outside Regis College at the corner of Wellesley St and University Ave, right across from Queen’s Park.

And there is room, there on the bench, for us to sit next to Him. But would we know Him?

© David McLaren April 2013

The above commentary aired on CFOS radio (Owen Sound) April 29, 2013.

The comment on Maggie Thatcher below comes courtesy of United Church minister, Hanns Shoutajan.

Lest we Forget Margaret Thatcher

Hanns F Skoutajan

There was a time when I loved to fly, unfortunately not so much any more. I well remember my first venture into the air on a flight from Toronto to New York (1947) on Trans Canada Airlines. I felt like a highly privileged person, aged 18, as I boarded the 21 passenger DC 3. Indeed, I was treated as a guest rather than a necessary nuisance as on today’s Air Steerage.

Nowadays I recall those early flights whenever I use Porter Air, a company very much in the news these days. Some years ago on a flight to Halifax I encountered Robert Deluce, the president of the company. I told him how much I enjoyed the spacious seats, the food and drink, the staff on ground and in the air wearing pillbox hats, the less polluting aircraft of their fleet. He listened appreciatively and then told me of his plans to expand into the United   States . We had a very pleasant conversation. Before taking my leave I offered him a bit of advice: ”Don’t get too big.” He gave me a strange look which quickly melded into a wry smile which seemed to say “try and stop me.”

I could have bolstered my advice with the economic theory of diminishing returns that asserts that after a certain point further investment (or effort) does not increase your expected return, but we were preparing to land.

What is reported in the news today is of course the very opposite of my warning, the acquisition of bigger jet aircraft and the extension of the runway of Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport ( The Island Airport ), out into Lake Ontario on the west and Toronto Harbour on the east. Well, only by a little bit.

I guess Mr. Deluce is well prepared to play hardball with the other airlines which will lower the cost of flying but invariably be paid for by poorer service and the inevitable working out of the theory of diminishing returns.

But who in this capitalistic economy can dare to avoid the risk of running off the end of the runway. The Invisible Hand is not one that I trust at the controls of my jet.

Brits, well some, maybe many, and like-minded colonials from stage Right like the Harper gang, are presently mourning and celebrating the life and death of The Iron Lady. She was a firm believer in the Invisible Hand, indeed, she had her hand on it all the time. She vowed that in all her political actions she would strive to remove restraints that would interfere with business. The one restraint that she most loathed was the labour unions and she managed to emasculate them especially in the coal and steel industry causing much unemployment and poverty. There wasn’t anything that she didn’t love to privatize until her own party privatized her.

Early on in her political career she stated that “ there is no such thing as society, only individuals…” and throughout her time in power made sure that she was right.

Her funeral with full military honours will be matched in pomp and circumstance perhaps only by the funeral of Princess Diana. It will, of course, be held at the magnificent St. Paul’s , a national cathedral that managed to survive the mass bombing of London and is a memorial to British resilience.

It will be a religious ceremony. All the appropriate lessons will be sanctimoniously intoned in beautiful Elizabethan English. Some of those words have purportedly been spoken centuries ago by a peasant preacher-healer who had had it with the sacrificial cult celebrated in the Second Temple of Jerusalem, “a den of thieves” (Matthew 21; 13) built with no financial restraints by Herod the Great and the exploitation of the Palestinian peasants.

This “Joshua” predicted to his friends who were enamoured by the big stones of the building, and aren’t we all, that not one of them would be left standing on another. In the year 70 AD those same Romans who had crucified him proved him true.

Will those worshippers including our prime minister understand or be willing to understand the implications of those sacred scriptures?

Kipling (1865 – 1936) in his Recessional written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee warned the departing dignitaries “the tumult and the shouting dies. The captains and the kings depart. Still stands thine ancient sacrifice, a humble and a contrite heart. Lord God of hosts be with us yet , Lest we forget, lest we forget.”

We are good at forgetting especially when confronted by the pressure of “progress” to which there must be no obstruction, where the only rationale is “bigger is better” whether that be airlines, or an out of character high-rise on Preston Street in Ottawa. And of course military prowess.

One day that young preacher fed thousands on a Galilean hillside with five loaves and two fish. Undoubtedly there is a rational explanation of the increase of food. For me, however, the miracle is not one of food production but distribution. Laissez faire won’t do it.

We are facing 7 billion mouths to feed, no simple task, but it is possible if the wealth of the earth is properly distributed, if the richest and most powerful, the .01%, are prevented from garnering the most while the poorest “individuals” are left to grovel for the crumbs under the table.

I am not sure of the scripture readings that will be heard at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, but I am reasonably certain that few will recall that they were first spoken by a poor itinerant preacher, who came to an early and cruel demise and who bears no resemblance to the crowds gathered at the Lady’s bier. They most certainly wouldn’t let him in.

SQ 11/04/2013
 http://hansfelix.blogspot.ca/

Margaret Thatcher at rest in Westminster Abbey

Margaret Thatcher at rest in St Paul’s Cathedral, London

 

 

Jesus Homeless at rest on a park bench in Toronto

Jesus the Homeless at rest on a park bench in Toronto

 

 

Matthew 25:35-45

35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:

43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

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