The full-time factory job that paid you a living wage in the early 1980s is a relic now. A person of the working class today or — dare I say it — those looking to join the middle class — cannot pay rent, buy food, have a car, or pay for insurance, and still have a little left over to feel human. That’s because, when accounting for inflation, real wages haven’t increased in nearly 40 years. People lurch from one gig job to another — and our youngest working generations have never experienced any other reality.
We often give millennials a hard time, but they were born into job-poor circumstances, despite an impressively-rising GDP. (And that’s why this tired statistic should be used sparingly; it does nothing to measure how well off you and your neighbours are.) None of the GDP gains Canada has experienced have trickled down in workers’ favour. Precarious temp jobs, low wages relative to the cost of living, a lack of benefits, and sky-high home prices — this is what greets working young adults when they leave high school. Focusing only on our GDP has enriched our financial markets while impoverishing our people.
Generation X — my generation — has known both worlds. We watched federal leaders sign free trade agreements that told us how amazing things would soon be, once our companies had the chance to compete with China and Mexico. Some of us, decades ago, thought it was a fantastic idea. I was one of them.
Then in the east end of Lindsay, like small towns all over Canada, we watched our fathers, mothers, uncles and aunts walk out of factories for the last time, now mere consumers for the Chinese goods we once made here with pride.
It seems quaint now but once upon a time there existed great co-operation between big business and labour, particularly from the 1950s to the 1970s. But in a globalized world, accelerated by sweeping free trade agreements, corporations soon discovered that the living wages they paid to Canadians could be massively reduced by setting up overseas.
There was no more incentive to work with labour, to help create the kind of fair country that we’d all want if given half the chance. But hey, we have fresh mangoes and Amazon Prime. We have six or eight brands of whatever we want. It’s just too bad we don’t have enough good jobs anymore.
We need to change that — and we can. We need to make things here again. Medicines. More food. Essential products for a self-sufficient country.
So, if big business only cares about its bottom line, especially since the 1980s, what do unions care about, as we discuss in this issue? Good jobs, decent pay, the environment, workplace safety, retirement security, social justice, ending discrimination in workplaces — the things any Canadian would tell you is important. Are these not the things we should all fight for?