Archive for March, 2010

Public transit and world-class cachet: Toronto won’t get any

March 30, 2010

I really wish Ontario PM Dalton McGuinty had been able to read the recent Toronto Board of Trade report on commuting times in 19 world cities, as reported in the Globe and Mail on March 29th and the Toronto Star the next day. If he had, he might not have forced Toronto Mayor David Miller and the City to declare the indefinite delay of a crucial improvement in our public transit system.

Let’s face it: we need those extra light-rail transit lines in Scarborough, and along Sheppard East, Finch West and Eglinton, and not just for the Pan-Am Games. We need them for the citizens of this town.

It’s great to encourage cycling as a green alternative, but not all of us want to brave the possibility of broken bones from inadequate bike lanes, or the dearth of showers at work when we get there, or the inclement weather which makes cycling a chore over half the year, not counting the rain. That leaves public transportation as the only other viable green alternative for anyone more than an hour’s walk away from work.

The dearth of public transit options means fewer people want to use it. That means more cars on the road. According to the Toronto Board of trade report, commuters already face a miserable 80-minute ride — dead last behind Los Angeles, New York, London and Montreal. Gridlock will only get worse as more people drive into the city. And more gridlock, ultimately, makes Toronto a far less attractive place to live and work for the high-skilled, high-demand workforce employers need.

At the end of the day, there has to be A Better Way (as the TTC slogan puts it) than what’s been going on.

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Virtual union-busting: the future of labour relations in Canada?

March 28, 2010

Living in English Canada, it’s easy to forget about the lockout at the Journal de Montréal which has been going on since January 2009. It’s even easier not to make the connection with an organization called Agency QMI. QMI now supplies much of the content at the print publication as part of content-sharing within the Quebecor media group, which owns this and several other papers and magazines in Québec along with the TVA television station and the Sun Media conglomerate.

It’s a tale of media ownership concentration, convergence and desperation. The future of media workers is already under attack from all sides, with or without the economic downturn, as convergence destroys previous ad revenues. However, technology affects more than journalism: what’s going on with Le Journal de Montréal is crucial to the future of Canadian labour relations. There has been no physical crossing of picket lines by QMI writers and editors, specifically. However, their content supplies a paper under lockout. Does this amount to union-busting? The locked-out workers certainly think so. In July 2009, the Commission des relations du travail (CRT) ruled that the work of the QMI Agency did not constitute strike-breaking under the law, but that it could be seen to violate the collective agreement. Certainly, Quebecor has found a way to get around strike-breaking laws in the province. So far.

Québec has one of the highest rates of unionization in Canada, at 39.4% in 2008, compared to Alberta with 24%. Overall, the unionization rate in Canada has decreased gradually over time, falling from 33.7% in 1997 to 31.2% in  2008. Unions make a difference in wages.  A CAW document quoting Stats Can figures is clear: union membership across industries consistently correlates with higher wages. For the year 2008, the average unionized worker was paid $24.47 an hour while the average non-union worker earned only $19.89. Full-time, union workers averaged $25.06 but non-union full-timers, $21.54. Part-time union workers enjoyed the greatest advantage: $20.79 per hour, compared to non-union part-timers at $13.16 hourly.

What this means is that weakening unions, by whatever method, amounts to driving wages down. It has other drastic effects on such issues as benefits, job security and conditions of employment. Technology has boosted productivity in ways that were unthinkable in previous years, as computers reduce production times for a great variety of tasks. However, new technologies can also bring additional responsibilities. In print journalism alone, today’s graduates are expected to master video shooting and editing as well as web design and content management, in addition to print layout, photography and writing, all for essentially the same salary, in many cases, that papers were paying 20 years ago for one-third of those skills.

Journalism isn’t the only industry where this type of convergence is happening. If multitasking saves money, it can also harm quality control, as workers have less and less time to make sure the product is up to par. Without clear and defined job descriptions, or provisions to negotiate any changes to these fairly and reasonably, in incremental ways, more tasks can get piled on the shoulders of each worker as a condition of employment, without warning, making it impossible for workers to do their job adequately, plan for the future or protect themselves.

Unions help ensure fair treatment as well as a decent wage. The more they are held in contempt, the worse things get for all salaried employees.

Fifteen minutes at the job fair

March 11, 2010

On March 10 at the Metropolitan Centre, just down the block from me, there was a job fair. I went to take a look to see the pulse of the economy. In our riding of Scarborough-Agincourt, household income in 2005 was around $60,000 per year, or $16,000 lower than the Toronto average. The unemployment rate in was 9 per cent, when the economy was booming. (Source: Scarborough-Agincourt-2005). That’s higher than the 8.3 % rate in all of Canada as of February 2010. Ethnically, our riding is quite diverse: 83 per cent of residents were listed as visible minorities in 2005.

Before I even got there, I saw cars snaking in unable to find a spot. Inside, most of the 20 or so exhibitors were either job-finding organizations or colleges and learning centres. There were about three employers. One of them, a financial company, wouldn’t discuss the type of compensation, i.e., salary or commission: “That’s the type of thing we talk about during the second interview, for those who qualify”, the rep informed me when I asked. His delivery was robotic as he informed me that he was looking for “the type of person who is good at communicating”. It sounded like a line he’d repeated 20 times already and the job fair was just getting underway. I bet he had line fatigue.

It took about ten minutes to tour the hall. One stand had a line-up about 20 feet long: it was for a one-minute resume review session. Other crowded booths offered job-finding services. The rest of the booths were from private colleges, which can charge tuition fees in the tens of thousands of dollars per year.

Before I left, I sat down five minutes to look at the handout the greeters had given me before coming in. Most of it covered job tips and training.

The walk there was longer than the time I spent at the fair. I’m glad it was a sunny day, because otherwise I might have found the moment somewhat depressing.

Africville: the lie of Canadian gentility

March 5, 2010

If you’re from outside of Halifax, you may have blinked and missed it: the city recently extended an apology for bulldozing Africville, site of a 100-year old community of Black Loyalists, back in the 1960s.

As a Torontonian I had never heard of the history of the Black Loyalists in Canada, even though it goes back 250 years. I found out more after reading Lawrence Hill’s gripping saga The Book of Negroes, which follows the fictional character of Aminata Diallo from her native Africa to the slaves ships and ports of America, then on to Nova Scotia, where slaves were promised freedom and land if they helped the British army. Since they were denied the land they were promised, and ended up selling themselves back into slavery through indentured servitude simply to survive, thousands accepted an offer to go colonize Sierra Leone. Today in that country, the descendants of those emigrants are still known as the Nova Scotians.

I never learned any of this in school, any more than I learned about the plight of those who took the Underground Railroad to Southern Ontario to escape from slavery, or about how they were treated here once they settled in for good. I had to look it up.

It took a while, because in Canada, we are told our country is tolerant, accepting, kind and welcoming.

The people of Africville have a much different story to tell, according to several sources.  One is the work of George Elroy Boyd, whose radio documentary Consecrated Ground won the Atlantic Journalism Award in 1989.  Another, the one I consulted, is Razing Africville: A Geography of Racism, by Jennifer Nelson (University of Toronto Press; 1 edition (Feb 2 2008) ISBN-10: 0802092527).

Africville’s neglect and destruction appears yet another disgrace in the history of Canada. Its destruction echoes the relocation of several other communities such as aboriginal and Inuit ones. What happened in Africville — the destruction of an entire neighbourhood in the apparent name of “urban renewal”, after reportedly denying it sewage, garbage collection and running water, and installing a city dump right in the middle of it — also resembles what we do to the homeless when we demolish the tents they set up and tell them to move along, so that they end up sleeping in yet another doorway without protection, only to be told that they are unsightly and must be moved again. The difference between this and the destruction of Africville is that the latter was a community where the tax-paying residents’ ancestors had bought the land, and should have been granted title to it. Instead, sources say they were offered mere hundreds of dollars in compensation at best, and herded off into public rental housing. The Baptist church was razed to the ground along with people’s houses.

Africville residents are said to have paid taxes for services they never received. This means they were robbed several times over, then dispossessed entirely. Many contemporary accounts describing life in Halifax for members of the Black community in the 1950s note they would be denied service in certain restaurants, and that they had difficulty finding any rental housing. The idyllic portrait of Canada that we are taught to be so proud of is a lie.

For much of my young adulthood, I bought into the stereotype of Americans tending to reveal far too much of their private lives. I saw this as a flaw. We Canadians are more reserved, I thought: this is a virtue.

What is much less a virtue, however, is to conceal too much of the ugliness in our past. If there’s one thing you can say about American culture, it’s that its authors will not hesitate to shine a light on the maggots crawling under their national rocks. If we know so much about deplorable American social conditions, it’s because they talk about them. We know far too little about our own.