Trudeau’s Growth Council is back with more bad ideas

Justin Trudeau’s friends in finance, consulting and big business dominate the grandly named Advisory Council on Economic Growth. A few months after recommending a giant privatization scheme, the gang is back with more ideas, many very good for them but very bad for you and me.

The biggest news: a recommendation to increase the retirement age from 65 to 67. Trudeau has been breaking promises and sticking with Stephen Harper’s policies left, right and centre, so it’s no surprise to see his economic advisors raising another Conservative corpse from the dead—despite the fact that Trudeau actually rolled back Harper’s shift of the retirement age up to 67 in his first budget. Of course, when Harper proposed it, it was mean-spirited, when Bay St. wants it, it’s the bleeding edge of innovative growth strategy!

Beyond this one terrible idea, the Council’s report is full of warmed-over buzzwords and overblown market-speak. Recommendations will “re-imagine the role of government (specifically, as a convener/catalyst and as an investor)” and “catalyze the formation of business-led ‘innovation marketplaces.'” There’s a bit of Sheryl Sandberg feminism for the 1%: gender inequality ameliorated via “a corporate gender diversity challenge.” Yet elsewhere the ideological bent is more transparent: “much of our potential is untapped, held back due to policies (e.g., excessive regulations).” Chamber of Commerce talking points shouldn’t be a surprise in a document prepared in the C-suite, but they’re being sold as “inclusive growth.”

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No shortcuts: Jane McAlevey on organizing that can transform unions and society

Today’s epsiode was recorded live at an event with union organizer and author Jane McAlevey in Toronto last week to launch her new book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. I was honoured to share the stage with Jane and Stephanie Ross, who teaches in labour studies at McMaster, to discuss this important and very readable book that lays out the organizing approach that can save today’s ossified and crumbling labour movement. Stephanie and I took turns asking questions and before we knew it an hour was up!

This is my second interview with Jane; the first is available both as a podcast and transcribed. As always, remember to subscribe using the links below the player to get new episodes as they appear (you can also donate to help keep the show going).

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Elites debate boosting the economy, but for whom?

Elites and the talking heads in the media are arguing about how to respond to Canada’s soured economic outlook. Who should try to boost the economy, the federal government via fiscal stimulus or the Bank of Canada via monetary policy? But while elites argue amongst themselves, the overriding context is a transfer and concentration of economic power upwards. This, not $10 billion here or 0.25% there, is what hamstrings any policy response going to the benefit of the many.

First, some context. Yesterday’s report from the Bank of Canada describing the state of the economy did not make for happy reading. While there is no crash, no panic and no crisis, the picture isn’t particularly rosy. The kind of generalized malaise and stagnation that has affected much of the globe since the last crisis—and that our resource boom staved off—seems to be hitting home. The Bank revised downwards its projections for both growth and inflation, and has a history of being overoptimistic. (more…)

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The return of the modernist left

In the past few years, what has been loosely called the modernist left has seen some revival. Whether coming out of the ultimate failures of the Occupy movement, dissatisfaction with moralistic lifestyle politics or an attempt to analyze the current conundrum of moribound but hegemonic capitalism, some have returned to the idea of the left as a modernizing force—progressive in the most literal sense. Agree with its postulates or not, this broad current on today’s left deserves to be engaged, as it seriously grapples with everything from ecology to technology to economics and the left’s strategic response to our unhappy contemporary situation. This week, I present two interviews with authors of recent books that fit squarely into this current.

First, I speak with Nick Srnicek, who, along with Alex Williams, has written Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Next, I speak with Leigh Phillips, author of the more colorfully titled Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defense of Growth Progress Industry and Stuff.

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Uber and the Luddites

The fight against the sharing economy, and Uber in particular, can be disorienting. Opposition is often painted as techno-phobia. The good guys in this story are Uber and progress; on the other side are opponents afraid of flexibility and smartphones, kicking and screaming against a future already here. In many ways, this is like the fight of the Luddites (machine smashers) 200 years ago at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. While the Luddites were fighting the way technology was used to further exploit rather than liberate workers, they were and are misrepresented as simply afraid of and opposed to technology.

Just as power looms and other machines inaugurated a technological revolution that ultimately produced more work for the many and greater wealth for the few, so too modern technologies are enriching Silicon Valley’s billionaires at the expense of drivers, delivery folk and all manner of service workers. The sharing economy that is experienced by consumers as a friendly convenience is a low-wage, precarious trap for workers. It would sound all too familiar for the skilled cloth-makers who wanted machines to give them more leisure and continued control over their work, but instead found themselves subsidizing the profits of the machine owners in England’s “satanic mills.” (more…)

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Having the hard conversations: Interview with Jane McAlevey

My interview with Jane McAlevey has been published at Jacobin. The podcast is available here. Due to a lot of upheaval in my personal life (moving and a new job), there was no podcast last week and this will have to do in lieu. Normal podcasting resumes next week!

Michal Rozworski: You’ve argued that organized labor today doesn’t face an external crisis of circumstances, but a crisis of strategy. Things are bad, but for instance if we look back at the ’30s or earlier, working and living conditions weren’t rosy but we still saw huge mobilizations and stronger movement than we have today. If we have a crisis of strategy, what are we missing? What strategies will work today?

Jane McAlevey: It’s an important question, and I should clarify a little bit. There are external factors; I don’t want to dismiss that. The changing nature of capitalism has made things very difficult, so have trade agreements and globalization. As a self-criticism, I think I sometimes come off completely dismissive of external conditions. I mean to put an emphasis on what we control.

I’m fine to talk about globalization till the cows come home. We know it’s there; we know it’s a problem. The question is, what are we doing about it?

I want to focus on a debate that we can actually change. If we do change our strategy, I think we can win again. The reason I pound so much on internal movement failure is because it’s in the movement’s control. We’re not going to change the direction of global trade tomorrow. What we can do tomorrow is sit up as a movement and decide we’ve got the wrong strategies.

There has been this recognition in the last twenty years or so, in the USA in particular, that we have a crisis. The conditions are very difficult, the employer offensive is very difficult. The problem is that the way the US labor movement took the decision to look for additional leverage was to walk away from workers in the workplace and develop these very sophisticated, heavily staffed campaigns — staffed by, no offense, very educated white men who were given written tests in the application process on reading financial spreadsheets. And this was to hire people to think strategically in the labor movement. To me, this summed it all up. The question wasn’t: do you know how to talk to a worker?

The development of the corporate campaign has been a colossal disaster. It’s an evolution in some ways of taking agency away from workers at every level inside the labor movement. The key strategic pivot we have to make is having a ton of faith in the capacities of ordinary rank-and-file workers and in the ordinary intelligence of workers. We have to prioritize our strategy on teaching, skilling up, and training tens of thousands of workers how to fight.

Organizing isn’t rocket science, but it is a serious skill and a craft. We have to build an army of people in the field who can actually contend with capital on the local level. Not talking to workers and having a strategy that fundamentally avoided workers for several decades is what we need to change and what we can change. (more…)

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Jane McAlevey on organizing to win today

I’m very happy to have an extended interview with Jane McAlevey this week. Jane is a well-known US labour organizer and author. During the 2000s, she worked for the SEIU, organizing mostly service and care workers. Much of her work was in right-to-work states, places where the labour movement has had limited success in new organizing. Her work led to strong unions that engaged workers, brought hundreds of workers out to regular bargaining sessions among other innovative tactics and helped fight and win political and community campaigns.

Raising Expectations and Raising Hell is Jane’s account of her time as an organizer and a repository of ideas for organizers. She’s is now a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard and is just about done her second book, which goes further into her thinking on organizing today. I caught up with her after she gave a speech at Unifor’s national organizing conference; here’s to hoping Canada’s labour movement can learn some of the lessons her work offers!

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The case for a $15 minimum wage the NDP should make

Of all of the NDP’s campaign promises so far, one of the simplest has gotten the most press: the $15 minimum wage for workers in federally regulated sectors. This campaign plank should be an easy sell for the NDP, yet Conservative and Liberal attacks have managed to undermine it. The way it’s been presented has left it open to attack, but this needn’t be so. (more…)

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A labor journalism resurgence?

As unions and workers suffered defeats over the past few decades, so has labor journalism dwindled from a mainstay of major media outlets across Canada and the US to a relatively niche reporting interest. The past few years, however, have seen a still small but noticeable resurgence of labor reporting. Large media outlets, both print and online, have once again started to hire journalists looking at workers’ issues and reporting from the perspective of workers. At the same time, independent media have continued to do the same and some have gained in readership and size. The staff at some new media outlets, most recently Gawker and Salon, have even unionized themselves. This week’s podcast looks at the state of labor journalism, trying to get a sense of the current rekindling.

It’s a big podcast, too, with four guests. First up, I talk to Sarah Jaffe, prolific freelancer who covers labor issues from a grassroots perspective. Sarah writes for The Nation, the Guardian, In These Times and many other venues; she is also co-host, with Michelle Chen, of the excellent Belaboured podcast. Next, I speak with Lydia de Pillis, labor reporter at the Washington Post, one of the crop of reporters rebooting the labor beat at major media. My third guest from the US is Mike Elk, labor reporter for the online magazine Politico. Mike is a former organizer and has long roots in the labor movement. My final conversation is with Sam Ponting, one of the editors of RankAndFile.ca, Canada’s new independent source for labor news and commentary. Sam provides some perspective on the situation of labor media in Canada and how worker-focused media can make a difference in labour campaigns.

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Nope, Alberta still needs to raise the minimum wage

Last night, Andrew Coyne published a column in which he champions introducing a minimum income over raising the minimum wage as a radical policy suggestion for Alberta’s new NDP government. Coyne couches the column in his typical pseudo-contrarianism. Here he is supposedly advocating socialism…gasp! In reality, however, Coyne gets it backwards: a minimum income in Alberta today would almost certainly be a dangerous neoliberal measure. It’s raising the minimum wage that can help open more space for progressive politics.

First, the basics. The $15 minimum wage was a key promise of the NDP campaign and increasingly being adopted across North America. A minimum income is a theoretical idea that’s never really been implemented and would essentially guarantee every citizen some basic level of cash income. As Coyne notes, it but remains mildly popular across the political spectrum; it was recently floated as a proposal by Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi.

Coyne argues for the superiority of a minimum income as being solely focused on poverty reduction and redistribution, at the same time criticizing the minimum wage as too interventionist. As usual on the right, Coyne couches his opposition to hiking the minimum wage with an appeal to Economics 101: if the price of labour (the wage) goes up, the quantity demanded (employment) will go down. Simple: don’t mess with the market! (more…)

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