Labour’s fate and revival in the US and Canada

This week, two labour historians talk about their new books on Canadian and US workers’ movements in the 20th century, books which offer important and practical lessons for unions today.

First up, I speak with Barry Eidlin, Assistant Professor of Sociology at McGill University, about his just-published book, Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada. The book seeks to explain the divergence between the Canadian and US labour movements since the 1960s and we discuss everything from the recent Janus decision to how the US labour law regime obscures the fundamental power imbalances in the workplace to how Canadian unions still need internal revival despite their (somewhat) better position.

Next, I talk with Christo Aivalis, Postdoctoral Fellow in History at the University of Toronto, about his book, The Constant Liberal: Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Organized Labour and the Canadian Social Democratic Left. The title speaks for itself but the relationship between Trudeau and labour foreshadows how neoliberalism would be implemented in Canada in later decades and holds lessons for how labour should orient politically as well as fight Trudeau the younger today.

As always, remember to subscribe above to get new episodes as they appear, rate the show on iTunes and donate to help keep this good thing going. Thanks!

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How Doug Ford won and how to challenge him

Last Thursday was a dark day in Ontario as the Conservative Party led by businessman-bully-bullshitter Doug Ford won a majority in the provincial election. Two guests assess the factors behind the Ford’s win and the chances for building an effective opposition to the coming right-wing agenda for Canada’s most populous province.

First up, Doug Nesbitt, PhD student in history at Queen’s presently competing his dissertation on the Days of Action during the last Conservative government in Ontario under Mike Harris. He is also an editor at rankandfile.ca as well as an organizer with the Fight for 15 and Fairness in Kingston, where he lives. He analyzes this 2018 election drawing on links with the Harris years in the 90s, the opposition then and its lessons.

He leaves off exactly where my conversation my second guest, Deena Ladd, begins. Deena is the director of the Worker’s Action Centre in Toronto and one of the main organizers behind Ontario’s wildly successful Fight for $15 and Fairness. She discusses how Doug Ford’s win came about and what this tells us about the strategies that can challenge his government from below.

As always, remember to subscribe above to get new episodes as they appear, rate the show on iTunes and donate to help keep this good thing going. Thanks!

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The Ontario election isn’t about deficits—and that’s a good thing

How big is your deficit? This Ontario election, no one seems to care—and that’s a decisive positive to emerge from a campaign that’s too often been submerged in the politics of personality.

There is more and more light sneaking through the widening cracks in Canada’s austerity consensus. Hopefully, it will shine not only on the latest vote-buying scandal or bout of red-baiting but hit upon some of the big questions of economic policy. Here, the relevant question is not “how big is your deficit”, but “who will it benefit?” Or, put most expansively, “how are you going to transform the economy?”

In part, deficit panic has taken a back seat this election season because of an uncomfortable fact for those on the right usually most eager to stir it up. Mike Moffatt, economist at the centrist Canada 2020 think tank, has very roughly costed out the Conservatives’ platform (something the party has so far steadfastly refused to do) and found that their deficits would most likely be the largest among the three major parties. That’s the result of promising big tax cuts for companies large and small, car drivers, the wealthy, the upper middle class and other core Tory constituencies alongside insubstantial changes to spending. It is transformation biased towards the wealthy.

Doug Ford will protest that he will be able to generate “efficiencies”. These, however, will be either extremely painful cuts—think lay-offs for thousands of public sector workers like teachers, nurses, long-term care support staff or park rangers alongside fewer services—or an unkept promise. Decades of neoliberalism have created a lean public administration as much as the right won’t admit it in public. Anyone claiming to easily find $6 billion in efficiencies, or nearly 5% of Ontario’s budget, without shedding jobs or cutting services is simply lying.

The Ontario Liberals, surely emboldened by Justin Trudeau’s deficit-embracing, progressive neoliberalism, have also settled on steady, modest deficit spending. Deficits allow them to avoid raising taxes (the provincial corporate tax rate has kept falling on their watch) while continuing down the road of slow-motion austerity whose defining features are cost control and welfare state rationalization. Nothing to worry the financial markets and bond raters here. No real transformation either—the cuts of the Harris years are further baked in, only their rough edges softened.

Chastised by their loss in 2014 and emboldened by deficits from everyone else, the NDP is also projecting modest deficits every year of its mandate if elected. These however are due to more substantial increases in both revenues and expenditures than the other two parties, with deficits generated by raising expenditures more than revenues. The important piece is not the deficit but what’s happening with the two components that produce it: expenditures and revenues. On the latter, the Ontario NDP have finally injected the smallest pinch of class politics into their policy, promising to raise taxes on both corporations and the wealthiest.

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West Virginia teachers strike to win

This episode is dedicated to the recent, inspiring and victorious teachers’ strike in West Virginia. West Virginia teachers went out on strike in late February over low pay and continued attacks on the health insurance plan they share with all other state workers. They stayed out despite an initial deal signed by the Governor and their leadership and ultimately won a 5% raise not just for themselves but for all public employees in West Virginia as well as promised reforms to their insurance plan, known as the PEIA. I spoke with two teacher leaders from West Virginia and an expert on teacher unionism to get some perspective on how this strike came about, how it won and what others can learn from its example.

My first guest is Emily Comer, a high school Spanish teacher in South Charleston, West Virginia; she is a rank-and-file activist in her local of the AFT, the American Federation of Teachers and co-author of this excellent piece on the strike. I next speak with Lois Weiner, professor in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education at New Jersey City University and a specialist in urban teacher education and teacher unionism. Her research actively supports teachers who want to transform their unions; she wrote this piece on the strike that I reference in my interview. My final guest is Brandon Wolford, local president of the WVEA in Mingo Country. The WVEA is the West Virginia Education Association and alongside the AFT it is one of the two big teachers’ unions in West Virginia; Mingo County has a storied place in labour history as an epicentre in the Mine Wars and mining struggles throughout the 20th century.

As always, remember to subscribe above to get new episodes as they appear, rate the show on iTunes and donate to help keep this good thing going. Thanks!

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Jobs data doesn’t say much about the minimum wage (yet) but lots about growing inequality

We’ve had two months of jobs data in Canada since Ontario increased it’s minimum wage from $11.60 to $14 on January 1, 2017. When January’s Labour Force Survey numbers came out and showed some of the biggest month-over-month losses in years, there was a slew of predictable, reflexive commentary blaming Ontario’s minimum wage hike. Now that we have a second month of data that show modest job gains as well as falling unemployment, down to 5.8% nation-wide and 5.5% in Ontario, the same critics are silent. The lesson is that they should have also been silent about January’s numbers.

Simply put, we don’t know enough to lay the blame for good or bad jobs numbers at the feet of a minimum wage hike in Ontario. Both January’s negative data and February’s positive data should give us pause. The monthly jobs data are volatile. The drop in January was so out of line with long-term trends that it raised the eyebrows of nearly all economists. Part of January’s losses are due to the typical rash of post-holiday lay-offs. But these numbers also seem at least in part statistical error rather than a reflection of something happening in the real world, especially when compared with February’s return to the trend of consistent, if modest, job growth.

Unemployment rates across Canada; Ontario is second lowest at 5.5%. Source: Statistics Canada, The Daily for March 9, 2018.

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The problems with progressive free trade and a divided labour movement

…And we’re back to regularly-scheduled programming. Apologies for the podcasting hiatus to (now really faithful) listeners; I hope to be back to regular episodes once again. I’m restarting the show this week with two great guests. First up, I speak with Angella MacEwen about the on-going NAFTA re-negotiations and whether Trudeau’s much-vaunted “progressive free trade” holds water. Angella has been a guest on the show before and is an economist at the Canadian Labour Congress. Speaking of the Labour Congress, my second guest, David Bush, looks at the turmoil that led up and has resulted from Unifor leaving Canada’s house of labour. Dave is an editor at Rankandfile.ca; he writes frequently and incisively on the Canadian labour movement.

As always, remember to subscribe above to get new episodes as they appear, rate the show on iTunes and donate to help keep this good thing going. Thanks!

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Media get it wrong on Bank of Canada minimum wage study

Over a million workers in Ontario just got a big raise thanks to tireless, bottom-up orgainizing, but if you look to the media it’s a bad news story. The same, tired headlines are back. Yesterday, the CBC ran a story titled, “Minimum wage hikes could cost Canada’s economy 60,000 jobs by 2019”. Today, the Toronto Star’s front page blared, “Wage hike could cost 60,000 jobs, Bank of Canada says”.

Reading either of these headlines or the stories that follow, you could be forgiven for not knowing that the cited Bank of Canada research note had a positive conclusion about the effect of minimum wage increases on workers. A major claim of the Bank’s note is that, for workers, the benefits of increasing the minimum wage outweigh the costs in terms of labour income. First of all, the Bank is not predicting 60,000 pink slips but merely a slowdown in continued job growth. The 60,000 figure is a national, annual one and represents just 0.3% of total employment. Monthly job growth has at times exceeded this number.

More importantly, the Bank found that the costs of projected (remember these are still only projections) lower employment are outweighed by the benefits from higher economy-wide wage income stemming directly from the minimum wage increase. The authors write, “On net, however, real labour income should be higher following the implementation of these measures relative to otherwise. This is because the 0.7 per cent increase in the level of aggregate real wages more than offsets the 0.3 per cent decrease in total hours worked.” (more…)

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Site C, Reconciliation and a Green New Deal

Reconciliation is not just about rhetoric, it is material. It is about how economic costs and benefits are shared. If we are to be serious about it, we have to be ready to take on costs that are both political and economic. The sunk and termination costs of Site C are substantial and so are the foregone benefits of reliable baseload power. If we want our governments to take on these costs in our name without fear, we have to make it a common sense proposition that they are worth taking on to forge a new relationship with First Nations.

The BCNDP is trying to have it both ways — support UNDRIP in principle but make hard decisions that contradict it. Horgan was visibly pained today in announcing his decision; it seemed honest and honestly conflicted. But it should be clear that saying sorry nicely isn’t good enough. There was little in what he said that touched on the concrete aspects of either going back to the table to get consent before making this decision or a different framework for proceeding in the future. (more…)

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Minimum wage whack-a-mole

Minimum-wage whack-a-mole is the best way to describe what I’ve been up to the past couple months. It seems like every week or so in August and September, the business lobby in Ontario was serving up a plate of inaccurate yet headline-grabbing predictions for consumption in the public debate.

Going against the grain of the best academic research and recent experience elsewhere, these reports have attempted to scare Ontarians into thinking that the costs of raising the minimum wage outweigh the benefits. As 53 Canadian economists, including myself, outlined in an open letter published earlier in the summer, new research is clear: raising the minimum wage is good for workers and the economy.

Here’s a quick list of pieces I’ve written over the past months countering the inflated, sometimes heavily so, predictions of minimum wage opponents. (more…)

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Summer writing round-up

I know it’s been a bit quiet on the blog this summer, but that’s in part because I’ve been doing a bunch of writing elsewhere. Here is a quick summary of what I’ve been up to.

In the run-up to the UK election, I wrote a piece for Jacobin on one of the most important parts of the Labour manifesto: the pledge to pursue “alternative models of ownership“, including re-nationalization and co-ops. The entire manifesto was excellent and really shifted the momentum towards Labour, and even if this plank was less discussed, it will be crucial to building a 21st-century left economic policy. This article will be included in an upcoming free Verso e-book on the election and its aftermath; look out for that!

I also wrote a long-ish piece for the CCPA’s Monitor, exploring themes in In the Long Run We Are All Dead, Geoff Mann’s excellent new book on Keynesianism. The book itself is an extended mediation on themes of liberalism and revolution, tracing strands in Keynes back to Robespierre and Hegel (!). I try to situate this history of thought in the present moment and, in doing so, also draw on some examples from Three Worlds of Social Democracy, a collection of essays on the fate of social democracy across the globe, edited by my friend Ingo Schmidt. I highly recommend both books.

In other news, I now have a regular column in the venerable left publication, Canadian Dimension. The first one lays the ground for the themes I want to explore: “Questions of control and decision-making, the kinds of big questions Joan Robinson raised back in 1943, should be front and centre. A belief in democracy that extends to the economy and a readiness to popularize left economics — that’s my starting point for left economics and for this new column.” The second column, hitting newsstands this week, takes on some outdated economic myths of Canada in light of the 150th.

Finally, in more local news, I have helped launch a couple progressive economics initiatives around the big win by Ontario’s Fight for $15 and Fairness, which has successfully pressured the provincial government to introduce legislation raising the minimum wage to $15 and improving labour standards. The main piece was an open letter from economists in support of $15, signed by 52 colleagues across the country, including two past presidents of the Canadian Economics Association. It has been widely cited in the public debate, helping shift it away from business-led fear-mongering. Alongside the letter, Craig Riddell, Lars Osberg, Jim Stanford and I co-authored an op-ed for the Globe and Mail detailing the tectonic shift in the economics profession around the minimum wage.

Most recently, I have written two additional pieces pushing back on a flawed, skewed and irresponsible report on the minimum wage commissioned by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and its allies. It makes the predictable claims using predictably inflated numbers based on predictably bad assumptions. It also appears to include an openly misleading claim around price increases to stoke additional fears. The first piece, co-written with Zohra Jamasi of the CCPA, is up on the CCPA’s Behind the Numbers blog; the second is a shorter follow-up of my own.

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