Northern Lights

by Barry Weisleder

The April 2007 edition of Northern Lights, a regular column from Canada by Barry Weisleder, appears in the San Francisco-based monthly newspaper Socialist Action. To subscribe to the newspaper, please find the details at the SA web site.

More Work For Less Pay

That’s the conclusion of a damning report by Toronto economist Armine Yalnizyan, released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, titled “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” Her examination of 28 years of Statistics Canada data on families raising children under the age of 18 found:

1.      The poor are working harder but earning a lot less. The 10 per cent of families on the bottom rung of the income ladder had median* annual earnings of $3,358 in 1976. By 2004, that number, when adjusted for inflation, had dropped by almost 70 per cent to $1,050. (*The median is the middle number in a sequence of numbers, not the average of the total.)

2.      Those earning less than $50,000 — 40 per cent of income earners — are worse off now than in the 1970s, even though they are also working longer hours.

3.      Those taking home between $50,000 and $85,000 are standing still in terms of pay. But to do so, they have had to accelerate and intensify their efforts. The approximately 376,000 Canadian families in the middle of the income scale are now working 20 per cent more than in the ’70s, yet their inflation-adjusted income has risen by a mere 2 per cent over three decades.

4.      The top 10 per cent, those with median earnings of $166,000, saw their income rise by 30 per cent since the late ’70s. But to reap those gains they are actually working less, by about 5 per cent.

5.      While government social programmes and taxes are, in theory, meant to narrow the gap, the so-called fiscal reforms of the mid-1990s do the opposite. The emphasis on income tax cuts has disproportionately benefited the rich. The emphasis on cutting social spending has disproportionately hurt the poor. Thus, low and middle-income folks never catch up — not even when the economy is booming and unemployment is low.

One flaw in Yalnizyan’s study is that it does not take into account stock dividends or capital gains. Since the richest 20 per cent of Canadians own 75 per cent of the country’s wealth, the calculation of that in the mix would make the gap visibly bigger.

While the country’s 100 top business executives make, on average, 240 times more than the typical worker (up from 106 times the average wage in 1998), the media praises and celebrates CEOs. Politicians pass laws that make it difficult to unionize the new, fast-growing sectors of the economy where low wages are the norm. Governments charm many voters with the lie that tax cuts will benefit the less affluent.

None of these policies or outcomes are accidental, nor are they the product of a misunderstanding. Capital and its political servants have consciously attacked and seriously eroded the gains made 30 to 50 years ago by what used to be a fighting labour movement.

Today, apart from the campaign to raise the minimum wage to (an inadequate) $10 an hour, most labour leaders continue to grant concessions, and most New Democratic Party politicians accept as sacrosanct the capitalist framework for the ongoing grand social banditry.

But as the poverty gap widens and the rip-off of the majority becomes more widely understood, the relevance of the socialist alternative will become undeniable. Direct, mass action for a living wage and for a sustainable environment, combined with a vision of public ownership, democratic planning under workers’ control — in other words, the socialism of the 21st century — will be broadly recognized as the only way forward.

$51 Billion Surplus in Jobless Fund

It is no surprise that the surplus in the Canadian federal government’s employment insurance fund continues to swell. It’s because so few workers are eligible to draw benefits.

Premiums paid by workers and employers have outstripped benefits paid out over more than 12 years, so the sizeable surplus of $44 billion in 2004 has now soared to over $51 billion. Outrageously, the government uses this money to enrich the giant banks who ‘earn’ hundreds of millions on the government’s debt interest alone.

Meanwhile, only 4 in every 10 unemployed workers collect regular employment insurance benefits, down from 80 per cent in 1990. Almost 17 per cent of workers who pay into the programme never qualify for support because they don’t attain enough insured hours of work. This is especially true for part-time employees, who are typically low-paid and are disproportionately female, recent immigrants and racial minorities.

Some critics demand that Ottawa cut EI premiums to reflect actual costs. Reduce the employee portion, sure, but why cut the portion paid by management?

Wouldn’t a better response be to increase access to the fund? Wouldn’t it make more sense to increase the duration of coverage and the amount of benefits available to the jobless?

Not if you want to force people to work at crappy jobs for next to nothing — to bolster the corporate bottom line.

Would You Prefer to Follow Bob Rae and Ujall Dosangh?

With the federal election rumour mill working overtime, politicians are scrambling to get ready, to re-position themselves, or to jump ship. In the New Democratic Party camp we note two significant moves.

Long time right wing social democrat MP Bill Blaikie is calling it quits. The 55-year-old United Church minister who has represented the Winnipeg riding of Elmwood-Transcona continuously since 1979, says Parliament is “not what it used to be. There does seem to be more noise than there needs to be.” Blaikie, who ran unsuccessfully for the federal NDP leadership in 2003, is remembered for publicly attacking Leader Jack Layton in the 2004 election campaign for calling on the Liberal regime of Paul Martin to rescind the undemocratic Clarity Act, which arrogates to Parliament the right to veto a Quebec referendum majority vote for Quebec sovereignty.

Evidently, Blaikie puts unity of the capitalist state (and the preservation of parliamentary decorum) ahead of party unity in support of adopted party policy that affirms, at least on paper, Quebec’s right to national self-determination. Blaikie says he plans to “do something to let people know there is a Christian left as well as a Christian right.” Hopefully, he will do better at that than he did at representing and articulating the principles of the political left in Parliament.

Meanwhile, his colleague, Winnipeg Centre MP Pat Martin publicly called for an NDP-Liberal coalition on March 13. His stated aim is to stop a Tory dynasty and avoid an NDP slide into “political obscurity.”

But to make his case Pat Martin grossly exaggerates the difference between the federal Liberal and Conservative parties. Everyone knows that Liberals campaign like New Democrats and legislate like Conservatives. Liberal federal governments slashed transfer payments that put medicare on life support, put post-secondary students under a debt sentence, killed social housing construction and mocked Kyoto. It was Liberals who sent foreign occupying troops and police into Afghanistan and Haiti, and instituted repressive ‘anti-terrorism’ laws that have been struck down by the Supreme Court.

Why would New Democrats want “some kind of informal coalition” with the Liberal Party and then be a party to the destruction of gains achieved by generations of working people through independent labour political action? And how would that avoid political obscurity, or worse, infamy for the NDP?

If Pat Martin is tired of fighting for principles, he is welcome to follow Bob Rae and Ujjal Dosangh deep into the brain of the beast. But to offer a positive alternative to all the parties of big business and their wretched capitalist system, New Democrats would be better advised to reject coalition and turn to the left.

CAW Drives in Reverse Gear

The Canadian Auto Workers’ Union (CAW), agreed on March 11 to let Chrysler eliminate shift premiums and out-source janitorial services on the condition that the auto maker invests $700 million in a Brampton, Ontario plant, just northwest of Toronto.

The investment, Chrysler argues, will allow the plant to produce a greater variety of models, which ensures greater job security for its workers. But relinquishing the shift premiums means employees will lose roughly $5,000 from their annual salary.

The CAW urged workers to accept the proposal in spite of the fact that they had previously rejected it. By the time the votes were tallied late on a Sunday afternoon, however, they had agreed to the changes by a significant margin. Now it’s up to the company to decide whether to make the proposed investment.

 Previously, the plant’s 3,000 workers had voted down the planned changes when DaimlerChrysler, the car maker’s parent company, announced a round of cuts that would eliminate 13,000 jobs at North American operations, including 2,000 in Canada.

The parent company is also considering the sale or spinoff of the Chrysler division and has been in talks with companies around the world — including Canadian, non-union, auto parts giant Magna International, owned by Frank Stronach.

The CAW has made concessions with other automakers lately in order to secure new investments in Canada, specifically GM Canada, which is building the new Chevrolet Camaro at a plant in Oshawa.

In Brampton, the Chrysler plant now builds three models, the Chrysler 300 sedan, Dodge magnum wagon and Charger sports car. This June, the plant will start producing the new Callenger muscle sports car.

The CAW is worried that demand for the current models is softening and the plant’s three-shift a day operation can’t be sustained without the estimated 40,000 to 50,000 new Imperials that would be built if Chrysler goes ahead with its planned expansion.

Bill Turner, the CAW plant communicator for the Brampton Assembly Plant, said the changes agreed to, if implemented, would decrease each worker's pay by about $125 a week on average based on the current production schedule, and would take effect on August 20, 2007.

Agreeing to change the alternative work schedule rules would save Chrysler somewhere around $25-million to $35-million a year, said Bob Chernecki, an assistant to CAW President Buzz Hargrove.

The CAW split from the international United Auto Workers union to oppose concessions to the US auto giants in 1984–85. Now that the CAW has joined in the race to the bottom (who can remember the last time the CAW led a strike for improvements in auto?) the question is: Where will it end?

Hospital Fatalities 15% Higher on Weekends

Today’s advice is: try to avoid having a stroke on the weekend. Stroke patients have a greater chance of dying if admitted to hospital on Saturday or Sunday, says Dr. Gustavo Saposnik, lead author of a University of Toronto study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke.

The most likely explanation is lower staffing levels and the absence of specialists and scanning equipment on the traditional days off work. The study looked at 26,676 patients in 606 large and small hospitals across Canada between April 2003 and March 2004. Strokes, the third leading cause of death in Canada, kill about 16,000 people a year. Patients admitted to hospital on the weekend are 15 per cent more likely to die within seven days, than those coming in Monday through Friday, even after adjusting for age and health.

Now, here’s a skill testing question: Are results like this more likely to prompt better hospital staffing on weekends, or will they be ignored, prompting those who can afford it to seek quality private care from for-profit providers?