“Equality has, since the Greeks, been the key value associated with democracy.” — Ed Broadbent, former leader of Canada’s NDP
Last week, we heard of another Bay Street scandal involving a prominent law firm and an investigation of insider trading.
We heard that Wall Street is expected to report profits of
$19 billion in 2010 — the fourth most profitable year on record. Canadian banks aren’t doing too badly either with our five biggest banks raking in almost $5 billion in profit in the three months between July and September. Clearly for them, the financial and economic crisis is yesterday’s news.
And we learned that dependency on food banks is on the rise, up nearly 10 per cent over last year. This should surprise no one considering the loss of full-time jobs, mostly in Ontario and Quebec, since October 2008 and the fact that tens of thousands of workers are running out of employment insurance benefits.
Statistics Canada says the gap between the rich and the rest continues to grow. In the first half of this decade, income for the richest income group increased by over 16 per cent, while earnings fell by over 20 per cent for those in the lowest income bracket.
And yet many governments are doing little to address this problem and have lost sight of the fact that equality and advancing it is critical to democracy.
The Newfoundland and Labrador government has committed to dealing with poverty and has made some important strides in that direction — strides that have made a difference.
The provincial government is now considering next steps in its poverty reduction strategy. This
is necessary because economic growth does not lift all boats. Without redistribution and share-the-wealth policies, some boats — those already at the top — will continue to reap more and more of the wealth while the rest of society is forced to fight over the crumbs.
We know that the financial and economic crisis has disproportionately hurt low-income, working and middle-class Canadians.
Many governments around the globe are now preaching austerity. Newfoundland and Labrador and several other jurisdictions where the recession had minimal overall impacts are the exception.
Workers’ collective agreements, which are merely a means of building Canada’s middle class, improving living standards, and sharing the wealth are under attack from all sides.
Concessions spread like a poison from one round of collective bargaining to another. Bargaining — for many workers and their unions — has been about protecting what they have and not about making new gains.
When one employer is successful in winning concessions from its workforce then it will only be a matter of time before another tries, and another, and then another.
With profits of over $6 billion in the third quarter of 2010 and over $10 billion in the first nine months of this year, Vale does not need concessions, but that hasn’t stopped the multinational mining corporation from squeezing its workers.
Those who criticize unions for the role they play in the economy should consider a world without them — a world where corporate power is unfettered and where the gap between the rich and the rest of society will soar unchallenged.
It’s no coincidence that this growth in income inequality coincides with an attack on trade unions including government
laws curtailing labour rights while increasing the power of corporations.
This is simply not good for democracy, for tackling income inequality or poverty.
There has been a full-out attack on workplace pension plans, and attempts, many successful, to introduce two-tier wages and benefits in workplaces across the country.
Still fighting the good fight
The strike at Metrobus in St. John’s is about exactly that. The workers are fighting to ensure new employees are not treated any differently with respect to benefits than those currently working for Metrobus.
This is an incredibly important issue for the union to have taken on. It’s not about the current employees. These workers voted overwhelmingly to take this job action even though this issue does not directly affect them. For them, it is about principles like fairness and equality in the workplace.
Speaking of fairness and equality, can anyone with the provincial government or Treasury Board explain (without a red face) why 14 Burin Peninsula women, earning barely more than $10 an hour, will mark a year-long strike next weekend? Why has the government drawn a line in the sand with these workers?
This strike, the length of it and the fact that the government has not seen fit to settle it, makes little sense.
It is an embarrassment for a government that has prided itself on making a difference in people’s lives and made so many progressive advances.
And unlike with the doctors, the money to resolve this dispute is pennies by comparison.
This strike makes even less sense when you consider that the government is currently drafting a plan for how we build a more inclusive society for persons with disabilities. That is the basis of the work done by these women on the Burin Peninsula.
At the very least, someone at Confederation Building is not connecting the dots.
Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at