Challenging the corporate game plan
May 1997 editorial in the T.W.U. Transmitter, 12 May 1997
WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?
Telecommunications is the high tech sector in society. Conventional wisdom has it that the high tech sector will be the major source of jobs in the future. But anyone who has been following developments over the past several years knows that employment prospects are not good in this business. Thanks to the combined impact of tech change, deregulation and competition, telephone companies have been simultaneously shedded employees and improved their financial results.
For instance, BC Telecom's 1996 profits increased 15% over 1995 to $251 million. Company president Brian Canfield was paid more than $1 million for the year, including a huge performance bonus. Over the same period, the work force was downsized by more than 1,000 jobs.
Similarly, Bell Canada expects to achieve profits of $850 million in 1997. But according to management, that's not good enough because the company is behind in its plan -- to double its profits. Nevertheless, Bell is on target with its goal of eliminating 10,000 jobs by the end of 1997.
There is something wrong with this picture. This spring Bell Canada announced that it wanted to contract out the jobs of 1440 operators. In response, the members of the National Alliance of Communications Unions, which includes TWU, CEP, IBEW, ACTWU, TEAM and the CAW, announced that they were drawing a line in the sand and that further moves to downsize and outsource would no longer be tolerated. Faced with the combined strength of more than 70,000 unionized communications workers and some hard bargaining from CEP, Bell Canada backed down.
THE CORPORATE GAME PLAN WILL MAKE THINGS WORSE
In these days of high unemployment and increasing job insecurity, even Canadians who have jobs are concerned about their futures. Against the background of this deepening crisis, politicians and corporations are holding up the province of New Brunswick as a model of how jobs can be generated in the new, lean and mean globalized economy. But a little delving into the New Brunswick model shows that what is happening there is really very traditional. It's based on making workers completely vulnerable to employers' whims and then advertising this fact to employers to lure them to that province.
(Check out the NB web site for yourself. It's located at http://www.cybersmith.net/econ-dev/solution.)
You may believe that high levels of unemployment are a problem. But for greedy employers, high unemployment is the answer to their dreams because it makes workers more desperate and wiling to tolerate poor pay and insecure conditions. Advertising New Brunswick as the "Call Centre Capital of North America" the McKenna government emphasizes the fact that "There are approximately 40,000 unemployed New Brunswickers with high school education or higher."
The province's Web site boasts that "... Purolator Courier had 3,000 applicants for 400 positions in their national call centre" and that "New Brunswick has the lowest rate of unionization in Canada..." Doesn't this make your mouth water?
The Web site provides the following "Points of Interest":
Looking for comparative advantage? "New Brunswick's call centre industry is primarily not unionized. Only 3 out of the 22 national centres are unionized, representing 14% of the industry. As well, over 58% of the non- unionized centres have Unions elsewhere in the company."
Everyone knows that in the new, globalized world economy, employers need all the flexibility they can get. Well just consider the fact that in NB, "Northern Telecom has 40% of its call centre comprised of casual part-time resources, and 35% provide on a temporary basis through Kelly Services. Northern has experienced no difficulty in attracting and retaining quality part-time resources." How much more flexibility could anyone ask for?
RIGHT TO WORK LEGISLATION
The job situation is bad right across the country. But they could get a lot worse. Employers and their governments want all of Canada to emulate the employer- friendly environment of New Brunswick. Just recently the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, Canada's foremost right wing, corporate-sponsored think tank, announced that it will hold a major conference in Calgary to promote right- to-work legislation.
Right-to-work laws allow people to get jobs in unionized organizations without having to join up or pay dues. Promoted as enhancing "individual freedom", their real purpose is to undermine the strength of the labour movement.)
According to Fraser Institute executive director Michael Walker, "Research suggests that jurisdictions such as New Zealand, Britain and 21 American states with right- to-work (RTW) laws, have lower levels of unemployment that non-RTW jurisdictions." This argument does not square with the facts. New Brunswick has the lowest unionization rate in Canada. But at 13.4% the province's official unemployment rate is significantly higher than the overall Canadia rate of 9.7% By the same token, British Columbia, which has the highest rate of unionization in the country, has an unemployment rate of 8.6%.
Contrary to Walker's simplistic, pro-employer explanation, there are other variables at work in the unemployment equation. Prominent among these are the federal government's insistence on keeping high interest rates high and the parallel obsession with reducing deficits by cutting public spending. The former has a dampening effect on the entire economy, which cuts jobs indirectly. The latter causes a direct reduction in public sector employment, which has a negative multiplier effect as the reduction in spending ricochets through the economy. Walker manages somehow to studiously avoid a discussion of these factors.
Even if doing away with unions did lead to lower rates of unemployment, as the corporate think tanks would have us believe, we should bear in mind the observation made by the American civil rights leader, Jesse Jackson. He pointed out that the last time there was full employment on terms that employers find acceptable was when slavery was still legal. His tongue-in-cheek remark questioned the legitimacy of a job creation strategy based on increasing employers' power and driving down wages.
Downsizing, re-engineering and contracting out have had extremely negative effects on communities across the country. The destruction of a well-paid employment means that the wages of fewer workers circulate through these communities. Becasue wage expenditures have a multiplier effect, the loss of employment serves to undermine communities' economic viability. Virtually everyone is affected as the local grocery and clothing stores, sports shops, and restaurants lose business. Property values fall and the overall economy of the community is weakened.
As a country, we must question whether companies and governments should be allowed to destroy jobs at a time when the official unemployment level is at 9.7% nationally.
The alternative is simple. If a company wants to sell goods or services in a given jurisdiction, it should be obliged to furnish employment based on providing those goods and services to the people who live in that jurisdiction. It's just a matter of creating sufficient popular pressure to force corporations and their politicians off of their current destructive course.
This is the basis for much of the effort that the TWU is doing in the telecommunications sector. We work with federal, provincial, and municipal governments, other unions, community groups and activists of every stripe, building support for the affordable, high quality service that Canadians need and that generates decent, secure employment for the people who do the related work.
The confrontation over operators' jobs at Bell Canada may have been a watershed. It was a clear announcement that Canada's communications workers have had their fill of watching corporate executives being paid outrageous amounts to decimate their employees and their communities. As we head into a federal election, other Canadians need to echo the same message by telling our politicians that we're fed up living under a reign of corporate terrorism.
_ARE_ WE HEADING FOR A HIGH TECH FUTURE?
The media are full of optimistic predictions that the jobs of the future will be well paid and high tech. But an analysis carried out by the U.S. government's Monthly Labor Review shows that the occupations which will experience the highest growth rates in the period from 1994 to 2005 include
So while the absolute number of people who do high tech work may grow, most new jobs will continue to involve work of a pretty routine, low tech nature.