Focus on China’s political economy

 

The focus of today’s podcast is China: its development over the past several years, the situation of workers and unions as well as future directions. To get some perspective second largest economy in the world and one still expanding at breakneck, albeit slower, pace, I spoke with two guests: Minqi Li and Cathy Walker.

My first guest is Minqi Li. Minqi is professor of economics at the University of Utah and specializes in China’s economy and offers. He previously taught at York University in Toronto and received his PhD from University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

My second conversation is with Cathy Walker. Cathy was for many years a health and safety officer with the Canadian Autoworkers Union and is now retired. Both while still at CAW, and now during her retirement, she has participated in a number of exchanges with Chinese unions and is able to offer a unique perspective on trade unionism in both countries.

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On talking about priorities: Oil spills and teachers strikes

On the same day one week ago, teachers in British Columbia began a full strike and the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline was approved by the Canadian government. With such telling coincidences, it is hard not to juxtapose the two broad social conflicts in which BC has become a flashpoint: that over the quality of public education and that over the expansion of fossil fuel development.

This juxtaposition is made across the board. Writing in support of additional education spending financed by higher taxes, SFU economist Krishna Pendakur closes with this point:

B.C. must be one of very few places in the world where “invest in our future” means “invest in liquefied natural gas” and not “invest in the education of our children.”

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CLC Convention 2014 fall-out

 

This week’s convention of the Canadian Labour Congress was more eventful than it has been in some time. There was a change of leadership and an energy palpable even from afar via social media. Of course, four days of convention does not a labour movement make and so today I’ve gathered together three guests to sum up what the convention means in the context of broader labour trends, for young worker and for grassroots organizing.

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Precarious workers or satisfied customers: a fine line for giant retailers

This post is an appendix of sorts to my article, “Fired by Walmart for Christmas”, to be published this weekend by Common Dreams. In the article, I describe the stresses and difficulties faced by Walmart workers during the holidays. Overwork, a climate of fear and barely-organized chaos make for taxing shifts at work. Low wages, insufficient hours and inadequate benefits stretch budgets and make it harder to find holiday joy at home. A Walmart Christmas could have easily been written by Dickens.

Here, I want to focus on an aspect of Walmart’s practices that stood out from my interviews with long-time Walmart employees and OUR Walmart organizers: the increased use of temporary workers and the greater degree of precarity experienced by all workers at the retail giant. The workers and organizers I interviewed all described a long-term shift in company culture. From the perspective of veteran employees, the company has gone from one that at least outwardly respects its workers to one solely focused on profit, even at immense cost to worker well-being. My interviewees all claimed this change took place during the transition in management after the death of founder Sam Walton.

Make no mistake: Walmart was always focused on cost-cutting. However, through a shrewd mix of charisma and good business sense, Walton was able to maintain a sense of community amongst his employees. He knew what he needed to do to keep costs down, but he also knew how to do it in a way that did not completely alienate and break his own employees.

In the two decades since his passing, Walmart has changed. Without Walton’s calculated approach to cost savings, working conditions have deteriorated. Wages, benefits and hours have all been reduced.  In addition, without Walton’s charisma, not even a veneer of respect for workers remains. Today’s Walmart employees are not only tired, poor and often on social assistance; they are also deeply disheartened and afraid. (more…)

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