October 2005: Here's a Book that Fills the Vacuum About Labour in the Media

Book Review
October 1, 2005

Work and Labour in Canada: Critical Issues
By Andrew Jackson
Canadian Scholars Press, 2005

The world of labour has virtually disappeared from the mass media. Twenty-five years ago, the two newspapers I read (the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star) each had a full-time labour reporter. So, too, did CBC Television News. Now there are none. We are, however, bombarded on an almost hourly basis on TV with business news, and the Globe and Mail has both a large Report on Business section and an RoB TV channel.

What labour news we now get often is in the business section, reported as relevant only to business readers. Workplace issues, like relations with colleagues, are sometimes presented as if they were lifestyle matters. Industrial relations is taught in business schools, and community colleges run programs in what is blandly titled “human resource management.” Orthodox economists write about the labour market as if workers’ time was just another commodity. Such is the nature of our relentlessly neoconservative times, where the discourse of business has penetrated every nook and cranny of our lives.

Fortunately, there still are trade unions and labour federations which employ economists to think about the real-world issues that face their members. Like Andrew Jackson of the Canadian Labour Congress. And there still are publishers who are prepared to publish on the basis of quality and to publish scholars who are, in fact, scholars in the best sense of not buying into orthodoxy. Like the Canadian Scholars’ Press. Put them together and you’ve got this book.

It is a gem. Comprehensive: everything from workers’ wages to health and safety issues, to the status of workers of colour to on-the-job training and how there is too little of it, to the impact on workers of free trade to discrimination against women, to the state of Canadian unions, to--I kid you not--could Canada look more like Denmark? Chock full of data: Jackson mines Statistics Canada and makes the data intelligible, I’d guess, even to the normal easily-bored-with-numbers-and-charts reader.

It’s an encyclopedia in the small, organized in 11 chapters, with recommendations for further reading and further references to the literature at the end of each, with special boxed inserts that highlight key information. In short, it’s an essential reference book for anyone with any interest in the world of labour, whether union activist or student. I thought that, as a well-aged scholar interested in labour issues, I knew what there was to know, but I still learned a lot from reading this book, including fuller documentation of things I did know.

For example, on page 90: “Of the provinces, only Quebec mandates a minimum employer effort on worker training. Here, an employer who does not spend at least 1% of payroll on training must pay that amount to the provincial government.” On page 104: “Recent immigrants are more highly educated than other Canadians, and more highly educated than previous immigrants…But economic gaps have still grown, and visible minority workers who are not immigrants, but were born in Canada and educated in Canada, still have lower earnings than comparable Canadian workers. Large and growing gaps of income and opportunity are at least partly explained, not by real differences in education and skills, but by racial discrimination.” And so on.

At a time when the business press tells us about the great economic gains from free trade--such that, even when the Bush administration refuses to obey the rules in the softwood lumber case, we are told not do anything that would put these benefits at risk--in a well-rounded chapter, Jackson shows how limited the economic benefits have actually been. Much of what he pulls together is from research he has done himself over the years. (He also draws on the work of economist Jim Stanford of the CAW. Without these economists employed by the labour movement--and in books and reports that as often as not have been published by the CCPA--we’d be hard put to find research on free trade that tells it like it is. And, having pilloried the Globe and Mail, I should point out that Stanford writes a weekly column in it, albeit only a drop of cleansing rain in a hailstorm of pro-business nostrums.)

To the hard question, “Is there a future for Canadian unions?” Jackson gives a most thoughtful and judicious answer: “No one can say with certainty that there will be a future big wave of union organizing in Canada, but unions will remain a presence in one form or another, as long as there are conflicts of interest between employers and workers, and a desire for dignity and respect as well as more democracy at the workplace. (page 183)

So what’s the story on Denmark? First, it’s not the United States, a country so riddled with inequality and hostile to social democracy that Canada can’t help but look good. Second, it has a deep social democratic culture unlike the superficial Canadian variety, from which flows a much more decent society in terms of equality and employment and worker security, and yet just as high an overall standard of living and rate of economic growth.

So how do we get to be as good as Denmark? Jackson doesn’t quite say it, so I’ll say it for him, confident that he agrees: Read this book and do whatever you can to build social democracy in Canada.

(Andrew Jackson is National Director, Social and Economic Policy, with the Canadian Labour Congress, and a CCPA Research Associate. Mel Watkins is Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto and Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. He recently received an honourary LL.D.--Doctor of Laws--from the University of Guelph.)