Income Inequality

Labour Day – Canadian heritage moment – Rerun

First published here in 2009

Flipping the radio dial on Labour Day I noticed CKNW’s Christy Clark featured a guest who seemed a strange choice on that day. It was a Fraser Institute automaton, there to talk once more about our “unsustainable medical system.” This is content that the silver-spooned Shaw Family, owners of Corus Radio, want you to focus on during the day set aside to honor the Canadian labour movement.

How fortunate we are to have the Fraser Institute available on this statutory holiday. Here to counsel us about social programs. Under the chairmanship of one of BC’s lesser billionaires, with a who’s-who board of preciously rich folks, where anyone whose wealth can be measured with fewer than nine digits before the decimal is patronized, the Fraser Institute steps forward to tell us we don’t deserve universal medical care.

After tossing my radio over the fence, I reflected on what Labour Day means to me.

In modern times, the Canadian union movement has lost influence but not relevance. It is easy to forget that unions enabled a broad middle class. Workers in unionized company towns in BC’s 20th century resource economy set the bar for others. They showed how positive full employment with good wages enables high quality life for the entire community.

I experienced that because I was schooled in Powell River and what was then the world’s largest pulp and paper mill provided good jobs and reasonable supports to almost any local family with a member who chose to work there. High school graduates – well, males anyway – were almost guaranteed summer employment if they went on to university. Countless people who became lawyers, engineers, accountants and other professionals had their higher educations enabled. Not just in Powell River either. Other industrial towns, with workers benefiting from healthy union wages, were similar.

These communities had comparatively few social problems, little poverty and excellent facilities, from schools to recreation centres. My wife and I recently attended our 45-year high school reunion in Powell River. People returned from all over to join those still resident in the coastal town. Interestingly, over 90% of our class survive and hold happy memories of our youth. Sadly, the great employment opportunities we had are mostly gone, with the paper mill now a shadow of its former self. It offers about 15% of the jobs that it provided in 1964 and none of those are truly secure.

On Labour Day, more than most days, we should remember and reflect upon a page of history.  Inspired by the nine-hour movement in England, the Toronto Printers’ Union asked for a reduced workweek in 1872. Employers called the demand for six 9-hours days foolish, absurd and unreasonable. George Brown, a “Father of Confederation” and leading Liberal, was also founder of the Globe newspaper. He wrote:

It is utterly ridiculous to talk of the rapacity and despotism of the employer. The tyranny of the employed over his master would be an infinitely truer version of the case. Proprietors have suffered for years from intolerable and increasing oppression.

Unwillingness to compromise led to a strike although timid supporters of the action warned against “obstinate dogmatism”, “ruffianism”, demagoguery and revolutionary ideas. Using a law from 1792, newspaper owners launched a legal action against the union for “conspiracy” and police jailed the 24 member strike committee.

Thousands of working class citizens took to the streets. Public outrage encouraged Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to rescue the imprisoned men by passage of a Trade Union Act, which legalized and protected union activity. However, alongside the Trade Union Act, Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act which made demonstrations and picketing illegal. And while unions were now legal, employers did not have to recognize or negotiate with them.

The first mass Canadian workers’ movement had a lasting legacy and it was celebrated annually in Toronto. Under pressure, the Canadian government made Labour Day a national holiday and the celebration spread across Canada and the continent.

Labour Day in the United States began in 1882. After the deaths of workers by the hands of the military and US Marshals, American leaders desired reconciliation with the Labour movement. In 1894, fearing further conflict and worrying about American alignment with international May Day workers’ events, Congress passed legislation making the September Labour Day national holiday.

Addendum 2011:

A Vancouver memory: The Battle of Ballantyne Pier  (H/T The Exile)

September 3, 2011, Robert Reich, former secretary of labor, now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, presents an opinion piece in the New York Times, The Limping Middle Class. It presents material worth focusing on for Labour Day this year. (H/T Chris M.)

THE 5 percent of Americans with the highest incomes now account for 37 percent of all consumer purchases, according to the latest research from Moody’s Analytics. That should come as no surprise. Our society has become more and more unequal.

When so much income goes to the top, the middle class doesn’t have enough purchasing power to keep the economy going without sinking ever more deeply into debt — which, as we’ve seen, ends badly. An economy so dependent on the spending of a few is also prone to great booms and busts. The rich splurge and speculate when their savings are doing well. But when the values of their assets tumble, they pull back. That can lead to wild gyrations. Sound familiar?

…The economy cannot possibly get out of its current doldrums without a strategy to revive the purchasing power of America’s vast middle class. The spending of the richest 5 percent alone will not lead to a virtuous cycle of more jobs and higher living standards. Nor can we rely on exports to fill the gap. It is impossible for every large economy, including the United States, to become a net exporter.

Reviving the middle class requires that we reverse the nation’s decades-long trend toward widening inequality. This is possible notwithstanding the political power of the executive class. So many people are now being hit by job losses, sagging incomes and declining home values that Americans could be mobilized.

Moreover, an economy is not a zero-sum game. Even the executive class has an enlightened self-interest in reversing the trend; just as a rising tide lifts all boats, the ebbing tide is now threatening to beach many of the yachts. The question is whether, and when, we will summon the political will. We have summoned it before in even bleaker times.

“As the historian James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream when he coined the term at the depths of the Great Depression, what we seek is “a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.”

That dream is still within our grasp.

 

 

Addendum 2016:

income graph

 

Source: Work of economist Edward N. Wolff at New York University (2012):
Net Worth Graph

 

Categories: Income Inequality, Labour

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24 replies »

  1. More vindication for my “Bob-Cott” of cknw prior to the provincial election last spring.

    The “straw that broke the camel’s back” was when the goodship watercarrier had his pregnant pause in the Leader’s “debate” during his show . . . .

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  2. I can’t agree more on the uselessness of the FI. The only thing they can be relied on for is spin that attempts to make their “chosen one” look good. All that does is confirm to the rest of us that what we already think is probably right. As an example in the last couple of days a couple of the nobles from the FI were asking what was bad about what Campbell has done in BC. They made a feeble attempt to sugar coat all of what I would imagine was their wish list of policy implementation regarding taxation and of course the HST. Please somebody pull their heads up from their navels and explain to them what has happened in the last 2 terms of his reign. Now we know where the surprisingly high 9% comes from. Really all that the FI has proven is that if you have a disproportionate amount of influence, you can get Campbell to do anything$. IF they keep it up recall campaigns will run themselves.

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  3. Thanks so much for this Norman. The role unions play is immeasureable to our well being and standard of living. However the populace seem to disagree. They have faith in the system without unions and are willing to go headlong into this capitalist society with million dollar bosses.

    Go figure.

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  4. It is not the populace that disagrees; it is the corporate world and their paid agents, like the Fraser Institute and the corporate media, particularly Corus Radio, a near constant source of news and talk favouring Canadian aristocracies.

    One irony is that few urban employees of Corus Radio can afford to live independently and raise a family because wages are so low in that company and that industry, despite extravagant profits.

    “We are very pleased to have achieved double digit segment profit growth for the third consecutive quarter. The successful conversion of strong top line growth and cost containment initiatives resulted in outstanding operating leverage,” said John Cassaday, President and CEO of Corus Entertainment.” – July 14, 2011

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  5. Fantastic post Norman–

    Especially liked the reminiscenses of the town of the Paper Kings.

    As to the graphical data, two things…

    1) It isinteresting to me, in the extreme how both the US Republican/Tea Party to the south and, now, our own Conservative/NotTory party up here like to invoke the times of the low, shallow, middle part of the last graph as the place we must get back to while instituting the exact policies that insure we never will. Which leads me to….

    2) Everything, on every single graph goes bad starting in 1980…Who, and what, exactly, was elected then?

    .

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  6. RossK, I also should have mentioned the efficiency of trades training through cooperative programs between unions and companies in facilities like the one formerly in Powell River. Countless millwrights, plumbers, electricians, instrument mechanics and other high skill jobs were filled by people who worked and learned in formal certification programs. These jobs were critical to generations of people who didn't know how to ask “Supersize that?” Most importantly, these jobs provided self-respect and full opportunity for families to participate happily in society.

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  7. “…the efficiency of trades training through cooperative programs between unions and companies…”

    Given the litany of sins the BC Liberals visited on this great province; perhaps their worst was aborting our world class apprenticeship programs – Thanks for that Rick Thorpe.

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  8. RossK, it is my theory that things changed rapidly after Trudeau changing the Banking Act and stopped borrowing money from the Bank of Canada.

    Norm, a timely post thank you. I spoke to my Meter Reader last week. He was very depressed about things at BC Hydro and the impending loss of his bread and butter, thanks to Clark, who claims to want to create jobs. Also, the teachers of our biggest asset, the future work force, who will be dragged through the mud by Corus, starting next week.
    Kim

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    • “Smart Meter’s” do that remotely now. No need for a personal visit. A wireless cut off of utility services is painless….for BC Hydro. CEO Jessica is programmed to never stop smiling.

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  9. Large corporations are, bottomless pits of greed. And, politicians are mostly corrupt. That combination, has brought many a country down.

    Eventually, there won't be enough citizens working to support all of the corruption. BC is one prime example of that. Everything of value in BC, Campbell has thieved and sold. Campbell has been dismantling BC.

    The BC citizens, own none of their resources, nor, assets. He sent our mills to China, along with our raw logs. Campbell put 131.000 mill workers, out of jobs. All for cheap Chinese labor, who only earn, pennies a day.

    Campbell and Harper have many irons in the fire, and none of them good. Since Campbell being in office, BC has steadily gone downhill….With Harper's blessings.

    BC is terminally ill. Both Harper and Campbell, want the old feudal system back. BC already has, that system on the go. That's why Harper wants the middle class destroyed. He has to control the masses. That is much easier to do with, the blue collar citizens wiped out. The poor are always the easiest to control.

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  10. Unions are our last hope to save the services that support our quality of life. Union members have the boots on the ground who know first hand what must be done to protect and improve vital services. BC Ambulance being a case in point.

    The radio clip in the following link demonstrates the lack of respect BCAS management has for the intelligence of the public:

    http://www.cbc.ca/daybreaknorth/interviews/2013/08/30/is-it-too-difficult-to-be-a-paramedic-in-british-columbia/

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  11. Graphs and charts often make my eyes spin — but the “Great Regression” graphs make so much sense.

    I'd say it's time for a pendulum swing.

    (BTW, where'd you get those graphs… Fraser Institute? LOL!)

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  12. “The poor are always the easiest to control.”

    Sure about that? The poor when left with nothing to lose will turn on the oppressors. Just ask Antoinette and Les Miserables

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  13. Very interesting Labour day post(s) Norm.
    I had just finished reading an “Economist” editorial on the emergence of 'big business' and politics fusing into a multiheaded Hydra.
    Politics used to be lead by the best and the brightest. Now it seems the reverse. Business now uses its influence on govt. To the detriment of all.
    How many retired politicians go on to Executive positions in the very companies they previously regulated? Gee no conflict there!
    The US Federal Reserve has become a revolving door between Wall St and Capital Hill. How do you regulate the very companies you made millions in bonuses at?
    Short answer. You dont.
    Political lobbying in Washington has created a city with the dubious distinction of the highest per capita income in the US….
    And Canada shouldnt be too smug. How many retired senior beaurocrats in Ottawa have gone on to work in “Public Private Partnerships” with the likes of SNC Lavalin, that fiscal paragon of virtue?
    I find it very annoying that in this day and 'information” age, with all our supposed “knowledge” we seem to be regressing into a Dickensian hell of poverty, debt and greed.
    Well, one can hope that the economic pendulum doesnt swing too far to the right.
    There are a lot of very very angry voters out there in “tax-ville” and “Off with their heads” comes to mind when thinking of people who have nothing to lose and everything to gain by tearing it all down..

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  14. Oh Canada, if:

    – Gregor Robertson is the best leadership that Vancouver's population has to offer

    – Christy Clark is the best leadership that BC's population has to offer

    – Rob Ford is the best leadership that Toronto's population has to offer

    – Stephen Harper is the best leadership that Canada's population has to offer

    Then:

    Oh Canada, my encouragement is to quickly begin thoroughly studying your educational and political systems in effort to promptly identify just precisely what it is that needs to be done in order for Canadians to once again proudly benefit from “truly” great leadership.

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  15. Obama in his last state of the union referred to America's unyielding race to the bottom. We in Canada, have the same “disease”. A “disease” of ideology, greed, manipulation and ultimately control of wealth and the masses. The “draconian minds” that spawned this disease, have infiltrated our governments, institutions and educational system. The ideology and mentality that goes along with it, are the “subversion from within”, that is truly to be feared.
    Indeed, if this blight continues, the middle class will not exist, and democratic governance will become far less than the present “sham” that it is. Nothing more than a “token attempt”, to quell an ever increasingly angered and disenfranchised population.
    One is reminded, that if our current malaise continues, that freedom will become, just another word for “nothing left to lose”.

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  16. “I had just finished reading an “Economist” editorial on the emergence of 'big business' and politics fusing into a multiheaded Hydra. “

    As Il (strike)Dunce(/strike)* Duce so clearly stated and Norm hosted a discussion about a few months ago, this is essentially the definition of fascism (Killing Jews was a special “Nazi” touch to Adolf's peculiar flavor of fascism, though the corporate elite and their media would prefer to distract us with the ovens).

    “Political lobbying in Washington has created a city with the dubious distinction of the highest per capita income in the US….”

    If this is true, then the high earners are really making a killing, cuz the majority of actual residents of D.C. are blacks without a particularly high income. The high earners just “work” or commit their crimes in D.C. but choose to live in the suburbs of Virginia, Maryland, etc. D.C. suffers from the “Detroit white/middle class and above, flight.”

    *Your comment board won't accept strike tags………….pity, they are often so appropriate!

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  17. Has anyone actually seen Christy in person recently? Our Premiere Fluff 'n Stuff has not shown her face for weeks. Let's see her mug with a shot of a daily to prove she is still in BC and in Canada.

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  18. If it weren’t for Unions and the Collective agreements they negotiated many of us wouldn’t have the pensions we do. There would be a substantial number of seniors living below the poverty line.

    Recently we were asked about our source of money? Had we inherited it? Yes, some–from our unionized parents but also came from a working life in Union environments which not only paid decent wages, but gave us good pensions.

    Eventually I do expect young people will start to seek out unions again. things have not gotten better for them. They will reach a point and realize they are poor and things are not ever going to get better for them without unionizing. Young people can not get ahead on min. wage jobs. Some people think $16, $18 an hr. is a “good” salary. Perhaps compared to the min. wage, but at $18 an hr. no one can save for a home of their own, can’t even afford to rent a decent place, can’t afford to save.

    In Nanaimo a care home was recently sold, all the workers, UNION members were given lay off notices. What usually happens will now happen, they will be offered their old jobs back at $12 an hr. Those jobs were most likely paying $18 an hr. and then people wonder why communities have to do fund raising to pay for kids school supplies and cloths to return to school. Families simply can not live on the low wages which are paid today.

    Now that many have returned from Alberta and their E.I. is running out, wonder what Christy and her cabal are going to do.

    If we want to know how the province is really doing:
    check the food banks
    check to see how many schools have food programs for the kids.
    check to see how many kids decided to deal drugs
    check to see how many people are willing to work as escorts.
    check to see how much fund raising charities will be doing for this Christmas.
    check to see how many people are having mental health problems because they can’t cope in these economic times.
    check to see how many people are filing for bankruptcy.
    check to see how many people aren’t paying their MSP
    check to see how many people can’t afford to pay their electricity bills. (approx. 6K this past yr)

    If Christy hasn’t shown her face in weeks, it could be she is waiting the usual 6 weeks after a face lift…………its a thought, not that I’ve missed her.

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