Corporate greed is eroding foundations of a just society

TheStar.com – Opinion/editorialOpinion
Published On Sat Dec 11 2010.   John Cartwright, President of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council

Not long ago, a wealthy stockbroker drives by nine men who have been locked out of their jobs at the First Canadian Place. He stops his luxury car, gets out, and utters the words that explain his attitude to their plight.

“The watch I’m wearing is worth more than you earn in a year. Get out of my way!”

Real estate giant Brookfield Properties decided to reduce the conditions of work for these employees. When they would not agree, they were locked out and put on the street.

This cavalier attitude is not just displayed by one company.

Across the country, corporations are engaging in an unprecedented series of lockouts of their employees, demanding that workers’ standard of living be reduced.

Sears in Vaughan, U.S. Steel in Nanticoke and now Hamilton, St. Mary’s Cement in Bowmanville, Genpack in Peterborough, Cadillac Fairview in downtown Toronto, the list goes on.

Hard-working families are seeing their standard of living undermined by the actions of CEOs whose salaries count in the millions or tens of millions.

Does Brookfield really need to save a few thousand dollars in order to keep its profit margin? Not at all. It’s doing this because it has the power to, and today that’s all that counts.

The 21st century corporate culture demands that pension plans be gutted, benefits weakened and jobs outsourced wherever possible.

While the driving force is made up of international companies that have taken over Canadian icons like Inco, they aren’t the only culprits.

Cadillac Fairview is owned by Canadian pension funds, and it had no qualms about destroying the careers of 61 employees who wouldn’t buckle under to its demands.

Even Mayor Rob Ford promises to outsource city cleaning services to contractors who pay poverty wages. And he claims to be “standing up for the little guy.”

There is clearly something wrong with this picture. For generations, people have come to this country to find a better life for themselves and their families. They have helped build a prosperous nation, where most people had access to a decent job and reasonable income.

Governments created laws that struck a balance between the power of corporations and the rights of working people. Most of us were able to find respect for our skills and knowledge, and to be paid accordingly.

In recent years, however, much has changed. The immense greed that fed the global financial markets has seeped into the core values of Canadian business.

Nowadays companies are only happy if there are tax cuts, subsidized profits and a pliable workforce. The same powerful actors who nearly wrecked the world economy are now shamelessly demanding that governments and workers do their bidding — or suffer the consequences.

There’s no doubt that a lot of these guys wear quality timepieces worth more than the rest of us earn in a year. The gap between rich and poor in this country has grown tremendously in recent times.

And unless something happens, it will only grow wider as mid-level incomes disappear from the reality of many families.

Extreme disparity is nothing new. That’s just how things were for centuries. But after the last Great Depression we learned that tough rules are needed to restrain the worst aspects of corporate greed.

A legal framework was put in place that guaranteed workers some basic rights, and allowed a growing labour movement to play a key role in raising the standards of all Canadians. Now, however, the balance of forces has changed dramatically.

It’s time to review the rules and fix them. Companies shouldn’t be allowed to lock out their employees and bring in replacement workers. Nor should they be allowed to utilize temp agencies to create a new form of indentured servitude where people don’t have a right to a stable job.

Labour laws need strengthening so that ordinary people have a fair chance for collective representation. And the loopholes that allow companies to violate employment standards need to be closed.

How long will it be before governments act on these issues? I don’t know. But one thing is certain. If they don’t find a way to stop the abuse of workers that is quickly becoming the norm, the next generation will be worse off than ours.

In the interim, many decent people will suffer for trying to hold on to what they believe is fair. And Canada will not be the kind of country we were once proud to build together.

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