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'Is there a school bus from Mars dropping off poor children?'

Labour movement as important as ever

by Sylvain Comeau

Newspapers recently reported that Canada is the G7 country with the most work days lost due to labour unrest. To Canadian Labour Congress president Bob White, that means we are on the right track.

"[When I read that,] I thought it was a good sign," White told a Concordia audience last week.

"It shows that we're fighting back against corporate power. Legislation can ease a lot of problems, but you can't legislate away anger and frustration. For the past 10 years, labour has been asked to take less and less, but you look at the other end, and what do you see? Higher and higher corporate profits. Labour unrest occurs because we're getting tired of being the ones to always settle for less."

According to White, Canada's strikes and labour activism set an example for the rest of the world. He feels that the labour movement is needed now, more than ever, to protect the interests of workers in the face of globalization and the information revolution.

"More wealth is being created today than at any other time in history, yet that wealth is concentrated in fewer hands. A handful of billionaires control more wealth than half of the world's population. Does globalization benefit everyone on the globe? The answer is no.

"We have homeless people on the street in numbers not seen since the Great Depression. Half of the world is in recession. These aren't left-wing figures; you can find them in The Economist."

White said that freer trade does nothing for workers if the windfall is hoarded by the big corporate players, even if the larger economy appears to benefit. White observed this contradiction at work on a recent trip to Mexico.

"I met with government officials who gave me the latest GDP and GNP figures, which were both up. I asked them about poverty figures. They admitted that poverty is also up since NAFTA. That's why we fight for fairness in trade agreements. We fight for a just distribution of wealth."

White feels that charges of protectionism levelled against labour unions are unfair and beside the point. Those charges fly fast and furious, particularly whenever unions raise objections to deals like NAFTA and the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investment).

"Our job is not to respond simply by advocating protectionism," he said. "Our job is to look at ways of sharing the wealth that is being created."

Another common charge levelled against unions is that they care only about their own members. White countered that the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and other union groups are heavily involved in lobbying governments, both domestic and foreign, on civil and human rights issues, demanding the release of imprisoned human and workers' rights advocates and speaking at international forums, including the G7 and the OECD.

In Canada, the CLC is trying to challenge the government into dropping its pose of helplessness in the face of economic trends and continuing layoffs. "Politicians wring their hands about child poverty. I ask them if we have a school bus from Mars dropping off these poor kids. Poor kids come from poor families, and families become poor when parents lose their jobs."

White fears that the market mania gripping North America in the midst of a bull market for equities, fuelled by corporate profits, is increasingly obscuring the ordinary people whose livelihoods are sacrificed on the altar of those glowing quarterly earnings reports.

"We are obsessed by whether the Dow Jones will break 10,000. No one seems to care about Mary Jones, who just lost her job and can't pay her bills."

White is also troubled by the much-ballyhooed trend toward self-employment, which he argues is hardly a panacea to unemployment. "Self-employment is fine for some people, but for a lot of others, it just means working harder for less money. Let's be honest, this is what employers want; they want to move toward more part-time, temporary work, keeping people on a yo-yo string, with no security and little or no benefits."

White's lecture was presented April 7 by the School of Community and Public Affairs.

Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.