The CEOs have decided. The value of young people is lower than the value of people from my generation. You don’t deserve the same salary, even if you are better educated. You don’t deserve the same vacation time or health benefits. And you certainly don’t deserve to have the same kind of secure retirement. It’s just not in the business plan.
If you haven’t seen the official notification of this decision, you probably need to look in the business pages of your local newspaper. It was mentioned recently in the study about the massive growth of temp work in mainstream business operations. The difference in salary and benefits between a permanent employee and a contract worker averages out to 13 per cent. For a temp worker, it is a stunning 34 per cent — for doing the same work.
It has been hinted at in the stories about income inequality, as the percentage of middle-income earners shrinks while those at the bottom end multiply. Studies on immigration sometimes note that people of colour aren’t achieving earnings comparable to those who came from postwar Europe, in spite of higher education levels. Perhaps it is most openly referred to in the steady stream of articles about companies closing the door to new hires being enrolled in the standard pension plan. Instead, they get to participate in a “defined contribution plan” — a glorified group savings scheme subject to the whims of the stock market.
Sometimes the notice is right there in the headlines, except most people don’t recognize it. Like when the postal workers take strike action to oppose two-tier wages that will drop wages for new hires by $6 per hour. That’s the Canada Post CEO saying the next generation of workers deserves less for the work they do, and of course shouldn’t get a secure pension either. It’s the same story in most labour disputes these days.
The headlines paint a picture of intransigent workers who won’t wake up to the new realities and give concessions. But the reality is that workers are very clear about what those concessions mean — that their work is being devalued. The contrast between demanding working people accept less and rewarding obscene bonuses to CEOs and top managers is a stark example of the hypocrisy involved in the current “new reality.”
It doesn’t matter where you look — retail, manufacturing, IT, transportation, long-term health, universities, building services — the CEOs have pretty well succeeded in lowering the bar. At the same time, they are hoarding billions in profits instead of investing them in new production. Some of that largesse goes into their own pockets; some of it is used for takeovers and acquisitions. But in either case, working people aren’t the beneficiary of the restructuring exercise.
With millions of baby boomers retiring in the next decade, one would think that the law of supply and demand for skills would allow new employees to ask for better standards, not worse. But the CEOs already have figured out a response to that. First, the massive increase in the temporary foreign worker program has allowed entire sectors to keep wages low. And second, they have relentlessly attacked collective agreements in both the public and private sectors, resulting in many workers being thankful to keep what they have, let alone improve standards. Nobody mentions that Air Canada agents and Canada Post letter carriers earn less than the average wage in Toronto. The constant, shrill accusations are that these men and women are overpaid and need to accept even less.
That is why the anti-union rhetoric repeated daily by business think-tanks, columnists and politicians is so useful in the CEOs’ strategy. Only unions possess the power to frustrate their plans, and weakening unions is the key to lowering wages and benefits in tomorrow’s economy. The fact is the standard of living that so many take for granted was achieved through struggle. Whether by unionization or other forms of collective action such as the women’s movement, it was always opposed by the elites on Bay Street.
It is the labour movement that has advocated so strongly to improve standards for all working Canadians, as we did with the fight for maternity benefits and to increase the minimum wage. Labour is at the forefront of the efforts to improve retirement security for all. And labour continues to demand that we create a just society and economy that offers good jobs for all.
If you are under the age of 35, pay close attention. Your standard of living, and that of your children, is being decided right now in the boardroom, the workplace and even on the picket line. Sooner rather than later, you will need to pick a side.