Category Archives: Labour and Economic Justice

All In A Day

We have heard a great deal in recent years about unemployment. Statistics. News stories. “Unemployment rises to 7%.” “Unemployment rate declines as people give up looking for work.” The word itself describes an abstraction, and the humanity of those affected is destroyed. Some people try to document the lives of people struggling to find work, for example Barbara Ehrenreich in her works Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. Yet, we never hear from the unemployed themselves. Almost all the stories come from the United States, but our official rates in Canada are lower, and among the lowest in the country are in my home province of Manitoba. Does this affect the perception? I write this article to give one perspective.

Follow Your Dreams

Born in the early 1980s to a typical middle class family, I am at the front end of the so-called “millennial generation.” As a child, I, along with other children of my generation, was told that I was special. As a teenager, we were told that the secure “jobs for life” available to our parents were becoming a thing of the past, but that if we followed our dreams and made sure our skills were always updated, we would be all right. In my case, this ended up as studies in geography that concluded in my mid-20s. So I should be set for life, right?

It’s A Jungle Out There

Not so fast. I found it very challenging to find work, so I turned to resources, like career centres and reading books and articles that claim to provide reliable step-by-step instructions on how to find work. While I respect the commitment of those staff who are doing what they feel is needed to help people, a great deal of the advice they gave was unclear. For example, we’ve all heard the statistic that “80% of jobs are never advertised external to the company.” That statistic is generally floated as a self-evident truth, with no justification for how that statistic was derived, so that is problematic right off the hop. But let’s be generous, and assume that statistic to be true. How do you go about finding these jobs? They’re the “hidden job market,” that you find through “networking.” How does networking work? Basically, you talk to people and try and find out where the opportunities are. I know some people who can do this very well. There are others for whom this is a challenge, and they don’t know how to present themselves in a way that doesn’t come across to say, “give me a job because I need one.” Which begs the question, does finding a job depend on skill or personality type?

“Cold calling” is another technique, where you call places and talk to people you don’t know to try and find information. I have not found this particular approach to be productive. Often I’m directed to the company’s career webpage where I can stand in line like the rest of the people, and I get the sense that they really don’t know how to help me anyway and are trying to let me down gently. This is not to pass judgment on these people. If someone called you out of the blue one day asking for help on finding work with your employer, would you know where to direct this person? How would you deal with the tension of feeling this person’s difficulty and not having any inside information that would help? But don’t worry, you are supposed to “follow up” with employers. While I can see the logic behind a simple, “hi, I sent my resume, have you had a chance to take a look and what can I expect?” type telephone call, I find some of the exhortations to follow up to be ridiculous. Are the people making these decisions not adults who are capable of knowing who they do or do not want to talk to? I imagine that if I took that approach to dating that I would run the risk of being thrown in jail. But it seems perspective employers are ahead of the game anyways, with many explicitly asking for no contact and advising that they will only contact the people they are interested in dealing with.

Another thing that is suggested is that you “go where the jobs are.” How do you do this? Some advice tells you to search for a job in your target city, for example taking a vacation there. But do you really want to spend time away from work thinking about it? What about the resources you will need to stay there, and if you have the resources to be able to flit about the country like that, do you really need a job that badly anyway? I remember once asking to stay with relatives in a different city (one of these is in human resources), and was told, “you’re not going to get past the gate keeper,” and I had another consultant tell me that moving actually creates issues on top of the challenges of finding work.

You are also supposed to “tailor your resume and cover letter” to the job description. Unfortunately, several job descriptions are so specifically written that it’s impossible to imagine any one person meeting the criteria. So do you make a judgment call, or do you still send in the application even if there are several criteria you clearly do not meet? What are your odds anyways? One of the jobs I applied to I found out there were about 60-70 people, applying for one position. No matter how good your cover letter and resume is, your odds are terrible, and even if every single application matched the job description perfectly, there is no way all of them would be selected for interviews.

What’s worse is that so many companies have career sections of their website that scan the resumes, and if yours does not match perfectly, you do not continue in the competition. There are also privacy implications, as for many of these sites you have to give personal information including address and contact information just to be considered, and they may not even acknowledge your application.

The worst of this is the silencing effect this has on the job seeker. Most career consultants will tell you to stay positive, and several programs are designed on the idea that if you stay positive, good things will come your way. You have to banish negativity. Well, what happens when things don’t turn out as you intend? When people don’t acknowledge your application, they don’t call you back to let you know, or you have an interview that you feel went great only to find out you didn’t get the job? When did it become socially acceptable to treat people as if they don’t matter, the way job seekers often are? And how can you communicate the sense of frustration, and mostly betrayal, when you are expected to keep a positive spin on the situation?

These organizations also work on the outdated assumption that once you find a job then everything is all right, no matter that the job is only part-time or one to which you are not well-suited but you made that compromise because you have bills to pay. So your struggle continues, and while there may be relief because at least you have money coming in, there’s also added stress. Maybe the job creates problems with your personal schedule and having the time outside work to do things you enjoy. Perhaps you do not fit in with the company culture. Perhaps the stress is having a negative impact on your performance, tipping you towards that downward spiral where job loss is inevitable.

Unemployment: The Personal Impact

Lost in all of this is the impact on people who are unemployed. There are the obvious financial aspects, whether your income is reduced or lost outright. Certain sacrifices may have to be made. For example, what happens if you can no longer afford your vehicle but you need one to attend interviews? What if you lose your housing and you have no personal support system to rely on? It is especially hard since there’s an implicit determination of your self worth by whether or not you have paid employment. There’s the issue of the negative impact it has on your social circles, your relationships, or even potentially on your suitability to date someone. The longer this goes on, the more it hangs over your life, like a shadow, choking out everything else you find meaningful. Where has your life gone? What could you have done or accomplished with yourself had you had meaningful work for the last 6 months, the last year, or even the last few years of your life?

The Myth Of Re-education

One of the ways governments have tried to deal with unemployment is to offer retraining incentives for people to go back to school. This is problematic for several reasons. The main reason is that with the focus on training, it misses the point completely about the number of jobs available, and training people for jobs that aren’t there is a waste of time and resources. Another barrier that graduates often face is employers asking for experience.

Complicating matters is that many colleges boast of employment rates above 90%. Sounds good, right? That depends on how you count employment. [u=]Red River College in Winnipeg publishes an annual survey of graduates to track this very phenomenon. The employment percentages are derived from adding together those who are employed inside their field of training, and those who are employed elsewhere. What is the purpose of attending college if not to gain a skill set for particular employment? And what of what you studied in college if you found employment outside of your desired field?

The Road Ahead

People who struggle to find work do not need “sympathy” or “positive thoughts.” They need secure employment. While calls for more generous unemployment benefits are helpful in the short term and well-intended, this is only a temporary solution. Unemployed people do not want to sit around all day collecting from an income support program, they want to be our there contributing to society as their talents and skills suit them. So how do we go about fixing this problem? I honestly have no answers. Perhaps the Good Jobs Revolution or Generation Squeeze campaigns are good places to start. Whatever the solution is, we cannot rely on policymakers alone to fix this problem. Those of us who do struggle with unemployment need to be at the table influencing policy decisions, whether through existing organizations (for example, organizations that deal with discrimination based on race, gender, or disability) or through forming new organizations of our own. And I hope that by starting this conversation we can move forward and address this problem. I have added my voice, and so now I welcome yours.

Raising EI Premiums

So, always incompetent finance minister Jim Flaherty is conceding deficits until 2015 ‘eh? And to mitigate these deficits, the fucking stupid asshole proposes to raise EI premiums!

The Harper government’s plan for whittling down Ottawa’s deficit by 2015 includes collecting billions of dollars more in payroll taxes than it pays out in Employment Insurance benefits over a three-year period.
This is stoking fears that overcollection of EI premiums, starting in Ottawa’s 2012-13 fiscal year, could hinder employment growth by unduly burdening companies as they are trying to recover and grow.

This is obscene. Both the Liberals and their “conservative” alternative, whether Progressive Conservative or the dog’s breakfast of closet-case Jesus freaks and greedheads that constitutes the various incarnations of stephen harper’s gang of idiots, have built their careers on screwing over workers and rewarding the parasites in the financial sector and this is no different.

Once again, our problem with deficits and debts was caused by the creation of high interest rate monetarist recessions which broke inflation by breaking workers through unemployment. These recessions lowered government revenues while raising government expenses. To bridge the gap, governments were forced to borrow large amounts at a high rate of interest. Sickeningly, business and government elites blamed the victims for these deficits and said that unemployment was caused by the attraction of unemployment insurance benefits, general welfare assistance and other assorted programs. To wean workers off of these programs, governments slashed them under the rationalization of deficit reduction.

It was the Chrétien and Martin governments that first seized upon the Unemployment Insurance fund (renamed by Martin as “Employment Insurance” in the same silly way that death benefits are called “life insurance”) as a cash cow. By hiking eligibility requirements and raising premiums the Liberals could collect money off of working people and use it to pay down the debt. While they were doing this, Martin cut income and corporate taxes which mainly benefited the wealthy. The wealthy, for the most part, “invested” their money in the farcical clusterfuck that is the North American financial sector, giving Canadians the worst possible outcomes. Insane financial products seeking to wring maximum earnings out of a stagnant, gasping, increasingly indebted consumer base. It was the attempt to square this circle that brought about the gigantic financial meltdown and subsequent recession in the United States and then the rest of the world.

Because of this recession, the harper government has been forced (under extreme duress) to go into deficit spending to keep the economy from going into a tailspin. The moronic Flaherty, having a 19th-Century grasp of economics wants to slam on the brakes as quickly as possible in the ignorant belief that we’re headed for a crash caused by deficit-induced inflation and all sorts of other doomsday scenarios that just aren’t true. (From the link:)

The net financial liabilities of all levels of government combined in Canada are projected to be just 27% of GDP this year, compared to an OECD average of 51%. Our net debt is down hugely from the peak of 71% in 1995. (See OECD Economic Outlook Annex Table 3.) General government net debt servicing costs stand at an extraordinarily low and indeed almost trivial level of 0.2% of GDP, compare to an OECD average of 1.7%. The fact of the matter is that we are in great fiscal shape, and can well afford to borrow more and invest much more now that times are tough and public investment is needed to sustain jobs and set the stage for a more productive future economy.

What is harper’s miserable explanation for such ass-backwards behaviour?

But the Tories defend the measure as necessary to ensure the EI program breaks even, particularly given a current freeze on premiums that’s keeping them artificially low right now.

The Harper government said it’s merely trying to ensure that the EI program balances out over time. It wants to recoup shortfalls in EI collections that it expects will have built up over the next few years as a result of the recession – which has sent unemployment skyrocketing.

“We committed to freezing EI premiums as part of the economic action plan to help Canadians weather the recession,” said Chisholm Pothier, spokesman for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

“We are keeping that commitment and rates will remain frozen until 2011.”

The problem is that while he’s frozen premiums he hasn’t expanded eligibility. Furthermore, the damned “fund” (which doesn’t exist as premiums go into general government revenues and the Supreme Court has ruled that the government doesn’t have to pay it back) had been in surplus since 1995 and all the way to 2008! All that time over half of unemployed workers (including two out of three women workers) have been facing rising average levels of unemployment and receiving no benefits, … all part of the process of stagnation and desperation upon which the parasitical financial sector demanded maximum returns from. So, in response to a recession caused by the collapse of the economy due to the implosion of a financial sector bubble built on the backs of indebted, underpaid, overtaxed consumers, fuckhead Flaherty grudgingly embraces deficit spending but hopes to curtail it as soon as possible by raising taxes on that same consumer base that’s been gasping for breath for over the past two decades.

A better option would be to raise income taxes on the wealthiest and the corporations. Our business world had at least a decade of low taxation, stagnant wages and a cheap currency (making our exports attractive and keeping imports artificially expensive) and they did little to raise productivity. Our wealthy, as I said, for the most part, “invested” their money in Bay Street and Wall Street snake-oil. They have more money than they know what to do with and the REAL ECONOMY could use it.

The Winnipeg General Strike: 90 Years On

Since this year is the 90th anniversary of a pivotal event in labour history in Canada, I thought it warranted a front page article.

The Winnipeg General Strike happened in 1919. It was in the aftermath of WWI when soldiers were returning home and had trouble finding work, and many people were struggling in poverty. Immigrants, as always, were popular scapegoats. In particular, immigrants from Eastern Europe were feared in particular, due to the recent Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The ruling class of the day feared that such an event was imminent here in Canada as well, so they refused to consider the grievances the strikers raised. As a result, workers from literally all sectors of the city, even those not in unions, called for a General Strike, which took effect on May 15th. Since many of these affected workers were also responsible for essential services, the strikers themselves arranged to keep those services in place during the strike. As this was a general time of social unrest, sympathy strikes broke out in other places, such as Calgary and Brandon.

The business class of the day formed a “counter-strike,” called the Citizen’s Committee Of 1000. They refused to negotiate, and saw the strike as nothing short of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. The Canadian government eventually intervened on the side of the Citizen’s Committee. On June 21 the Northwest Mounted Police moved in (Winnipeg city police had walked off in support of their striking brothers and sisters), resulting in 30 casualties and 1 death. The strike ended on June 25th.

Despite the arrests and jailing of several labour leaders, the strike had a major impact that would be felt for decades. It gave birth to the labour movement, and as a result of their struggle the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation was formed in 1933. The CCF, which would later become the NDP, fought for a better life for all Canadians regardless of wealth. The results of this struggle can be seen in such things as the Canada Pension Plan, medicare, and the right to form trade unions. And just in time for this anniversary, the musical Strike! is scheduled to play during the August Long weekend. The plan is to make this an annual event. A fine tribute to an important event in Winnipeg history.