By Mae Burrows and Donald Gutstein
Whatever the future of the Occupy movement may be, it provided us with the clarity to see the profound inequality in our society and gave inequality a name: the one per cent versus the 99 per cent. Occupy also provided the opportunity for young and old to stand together in the fight against inequality. People of all ages could be found in Occupy camps and demonstrations.
The prospect of this looming solidarity led the one per cent to attempt to fracture it by reframing inequality, not as something that exists between rich and poor, but between older and younger generations.
When deregulation and greed led to the market collapse of 2008 and forced governments to spend massively to prevent total economic meltdown, corporate and political elites set out to shift the blame for the near collapse from the actions of the one per cent, which caused it, to the Boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964), which had little to do with it. The idea was floated that people nearing retirement age skimmed off more than their fair share of wealth, leaving just scraps, and mountains of debt for those under 45. They came up with a new name for the declining fortunes of younger members of society: “inter-generational theft.”
We need to prevent this divisive framework from sticking. Unions, and particularly the union-based young workers’ movement, have a crucial role to play in the fight for a more equal society. Young and older workers need to work together to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of those who caused the crisis: the banks. Joe Brewer, director of Seattle-based Cognitive Policy Works, warns Americans and Canadians alike to not let “the real culprits—the reckless bankers and their enablers who have infiltrated our government[s] shift blame” away from them.
Blaming Boomers for our economic problems started in the U.S., where Tea Party favourite Michelle Malkin called President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package “The Generational Theft Act,” which, she claimed, was “mortgaging our children’s future for the sake of present political crisis management.”
This clever diversion away from the one per cent was picked up by senior Republican officials such as House Republican leader John Boehner, Arizona Senator John McCain, and McCain’s 2008 vice-presidential running mate Sarah Palin, who spoke in 2010 to a sold-out Calgary audience about “immoral generational theft.”
“Generational theft” is also being used in Canada by the Right. It appeared first in Quebec, where avowed libertarian, Sun newspaper columnist and co-founder of the Quebec Freedom Network Eric Duhaime, published a book on this subject. In a luncheon speech hosted by the neoliberal Fraser Institute in Montreal, Duhaime approached Malkin-level rhetoric when he labelled Quebec’s “irresponsible and insatiable spending” an “intergenerational holdup.”
But it’s in B.C. where the “generational conflict” frame is having its greatest Canadian impact. In September 2011, Paul Kershaw, an associate professor in UBC’s College for Interdisciplinary Studies, was given a regular column in the Vancouver Sun by editorial page editor and former Fraser Institute staffer Fazil Mihlar, to “start a public dialogue about how we can distribute/invest tax dollars in a more equitable and efficient manner.” This is necessary, Mihlar explained, “because boomers are hogging a lot of public dollars with potentially disastrous consequences for society,” and particularly for young families with children, who “are being deprived of a chance at a good life.”
Many in the labour movement like Kershaw for his progressive views on a national childcare strategy and more generous federally funded parental leave. But, in his columns, boomers-versus-young families with children replaced Occupy’s framework of the 99 per cent versus the one per cent.
Certainly, many young people are having a tough time of it—unable to get good jobs, or any jobs, saddled with a mountain of post-secondary education debt, frozen out of the housing market. But these problems have little to do with the alleged activity or neglect of Boomers. Their roots lie in the 1970s, when the income gap between the rich and the rest was at its lowest level in a century, thanks to a vibrant union movement, comprehensive unemployment insurance and social welfare, a progressive tax system, medicare, environmental regulation, government enterprise and inexpensive post-secondary education.
That’s when the business elite decided to end its three-decade-long truce with labour, reassert its control over the economy and society, and restore its historical grasp on income and wealth as the top one per cent. And that’s what it set out to accomplish over the next 30 years.
The agenda is well-known: crush union power, cut regulation and taxation (at least for the rich), reduce government’s role in the economy, cut social spending, impose free-trade deals, move what once were good-paying industrial jobs to low-wage regions or countries, replace workers with computer-driven machines, and offload costs onto the environment.
To recognize what happened is to understand what needs to be done. Unions are in the eye of the storm. The rise in wage inequality has been directly linked to the decline in unionization in the U.K., U.S., and Canada. As a result, the middle class is shrinking, the rich are getting richer (the one per cent now commands 14 per cent of income compared to eight per cent in the late 1970s) and the gap between rich and poor is turning into a chasm. One percenters in Canada earn at least $230,000 and an average of $450,000. For the population as a whole, in contrast, the average income is $36,000.
Unions have their work cut out for them. They have long had to deal with their own forms of generational strife in the form of two-tier wage systems. Employers use these to save money, of course, but they are also designed to drive a wedge through union memberships and ultimately weaken the union movement.
Some employers under federal jurisdiction, such as Air Canada and Canada Post, have been pushing hard for two-tier systems. In the auto industry, while the United Auto Workers in the U.S. agreed to a two-tier system with the companies, the Canadian Auto Workers avoided a lower wage structure by, instead, agreeing to lengthen the amount of time it takes workers to reach the top of the scale.
Organized labour must continue to build its role in the worlds of work, politics and the community, and it can only do this if younger and older workers, instead of fighting among themselves, join together to fight the common enemy: corporate power and complicit governments. There are many stories of resistance.
There’s little generational conflict in Canadian Auto Workers Local 3000, which represents generally low-wage workers in B.C.’s janitorial, security, hospitality and cleaning industries. Local president Jean Van Vliet says “The world looks the same to 20- and 60-year-old security guards, cooks and janitors, or to room attendants who have worked the same job for 20 years.” Boomers in her local “are barely making ends meet, certainly haven’t paid off a mortgage, and just can’t afford to retire.”
Adrian Burnett, a CAW Local 3000 youth activist, works for Securitas, a Swedish-based global security company. He used to think that Boomers would retire at an appropriate age and younger workers would get their jobs. But now he sees that, with the increased cost of living, an uncertain economy and fears about pension security, Boomers are keeping their jobs longer. He sees their pain.
In B.C., the average hourly rate for security guards is $12.60. (In Ontario, the rate ranges from $14.40 in Toronto to $12.90 in London.) The average annual salary in the B.C. security industry ranges from $20,000 to $30,000, with few benefits. Some Securitas employees earn less.
Contrast that wage with the salary earned by Securitas president and CEO Alf Goransson, who took home $1.7 million (in Canadian dollars) in 2011, plus a pension benefit of $500,000. Goransson earns 110 times as much as his average B.C. employee.
Burnett has been working with other union activists on a campaign to repeal B.C.’s minimum age law—that’s age, not wage. This law allows 12-to-14 year-old children to work up to 20 hours a week during the school year and up to four hours on a school day based solely on parental consent. The campaign wants the Ministry of Labour to take back its oversight responsibilities and ensure that the employment is appropriate and safe for a child, and issue a permit only in the cases where this is so.
As often happens at union halls, there are always opportunities for workers of diverse ages and from different job sectors to meet. In this case, the union local’s youth committee was meeting at the same time as a retirees group, and youth activists recruited retirees to discuss minimum age issues, and to volunteer in the campaign by staffing the phones and participating in other essential activities.
Union activists of all ages work together on bargaining issues and on a variety of campaigns, such as elections, supporting women’s transition houses, opposing government cutbacks, fighting for better health care, and resisting government policies like MSP (Medical Services Plan) payments. (Only Alberta and British Columbia require individuals and families to pay premiums to be eligible for medicare.) They’re also actively opposing, together, the government’s migrant worker program, while working to protect migrant workers.