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A note to my dear readers – I’ve been very busy over the past two weeks and haven’t been able to post much – for that I’m sorry. While writing has always been one of my biggest passions, it sometimes has to take a back seat to real-world action and organizing. There would be little point to writing about these issues if I weren’t willing to put in some real-world effort to change things, nor would there be much point in reading my words if I didn’t have years of experiences to base my insights on. As such, I’ve done a lot of organizing lately and haven’t had a lot of time for blogging. The last weeks of April are to anarchists what the last few weeks before Christmas are for most – a mad, hellish scramble to get everything together for the big day. Which day, you ask?

mayday3 smallThis coming Wednesday, the world will once again celebrate “International Workers Day”, commonly known as Mayday. For well over a century now it’s stood as a time to celebrate workplace resistance, and it’s been making something of a comeback of late. As mass-movements around economic justice start to re-emerged, so did the kind of large-scale strikes and street actions historically seen around Mayday. Last year saw enormous celebrations spanning several continents, some of the largest celebrations in memory. This year, we see if such festivities can, again, become a tradition.

Mayday’s origins trace back to May to at least 1886. On the first of that month, a general strike that had been planned for years swept across much of the United States, demanding an eight-hour workday. This met with cops, scabs and strikebreakers, and by the third several workers had been gunned down by police outside the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago. This inflamed tensions and prompted several notorious anarchists to call a rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square the next night where they gave fiery, revolutionary speeches to a crowd of a few hundred or thousand. As the last one ended, police charged and a massive battled ensued killing several and injuring dozens. In the fray a bomb was thrown at police, and while it’s unclear to this day who (or even which side) was responsible, authorities decided to round up group of organizers including August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Adolf Fischer, Albert Parsons and others. Their trial became an international sensation – lacking evidence relating to the bomb itself, they were prosecuted on the basis of their anarchists beliefs, speeches and pamphlets, with prosecutors arguing that their fiery rhetoric had inflamed the crowds.Following the notoriously rigged trial they were found guilty and several were publicly executed. This shocked and angered workers and movements worldwide, and by the end of the century yearly demonstrations in May had become a tradition.

For Hamiltonians, this story hits home in a few fascinating ways. Since the very beginning, Hamilton has been an important centre of the labour movment. The Nine-Hours movement began here in 1869, and quickly swept across a young Canada with the demand for a shorter workday. In May of 1872, we held one of the continent’s first “general strikes” to demand it and marched on the Crystal Palace (now Victoria Park). Combined with the legendary Toronto Printer’s Strike in the same year, they (largely) succeeded. It’s even been alleged (and I’m desperately searching for a real source on this) that Hamilton was an inspiration to the American strikes a decade later which led to the Haymarket affair. True or not, it’s certainly plausible as we’ve long been connected through organizations like the Knights of Labour to cities like Chicago. In the years that followed, the “Crystal Gardens” became a site of yearly remembrance ceremonies for the Martyrs. Next time you’re in Victoria Park, take a moment to read the plaque and think about the generations who’ve echoed that first springtime march up King Street.

Over the generations, Mayday has taken on many different meanings as struggles evolved. In some places, like the former USSR, it became a nation patriotic spectacle. In others, like the US, it was recently the day chosen for a coordinated national action of millions protesting immigration law. In the last few years, as economic collapse and austerity drives have swept the globe, as well as “Occupy” and similar movements overseas, it’s began again to resemble it’s roots in poor, working and radical populations. What’s stayed constant in spite of over a century of changing demands is the underlying theme – that this is about much more than whatever we’re demanding at the moment.

11509_425401574223348_750428851_n This year events are planned broadly – there actions in New York, Toronto, Vancouver among countless others, and of course a general strike planned in Greece.

In Hamilton, there’s a number of events and actions planned, along much the same lines as last year. The Anticapitalist March will be meeting up at the McNab St Bus Terminal (King & MacNab) for 12:30, then leaving for an early-afternoon stroll around the downtown core. If that isn’t enough marching for you, the Steelworkers will be assembling at 3:30 for a march around the industrial core followed by a BBQ, beginning at their union hall (350 Kennilworth North, across from the former Centre Mall). Barbeque and Block Party festivities downtown, like last year, will happen in Beasley Park beginning at 5pm, with food, music and games for the kids.

Anti-Capitalist March (Facebook Event)
Block Party (Facebook Event)

I’m sure there’s other events, too, which I’m leaving out, and I’d heartily encourage anybody else wishes to take a little initiative and start their own rally, march or block party. Mayday belongs to everybody – it’s our day, and any success will be measured by how many actions we see, not just the turnout at any particular one. Whether you’re angry about pipelines, school closures, robocalls, broken treaties, lockouts, austerity, “Free Trade” or deportations, Mayday is a time forge connections between ourselves and the issues we’re passionate about – in short, to build and celebrate a movement. This Wednesday, let’s keep the 141-year historygoing and show that ole’ Steeltown still has a little fight left in her.

See ya there.


City Hall

This morning, a few hundred teachers and allies rallied downtown. Gathering in front of City Hall, the crowd heard speeches then marched along Main, down Hughson (pausing for more speeches outside Andrea Horwath’s office) concluding at Gore Park for hot cocoa. The speakers, always a labour rally staple, were some of the best I’ve heard in years, including not just teachers but a wide range of others, from School Board trustees to anti-poverty activists and representatives of Six Nations. Along with the warm weather, frequent honks and amazing short-notice turnout, it all combined to provide an amazingly high-spirited rally.

Across Ontario right now, schools are gripped by strikes and walkouts in opposition to the Provincial government’s Bill 115 (text). The bill, which freezes wages, cuts benefits and bans strikes, has infuriated teachers over the past months. In response, both elementary and secondary teachers have been staging short rotating strikes and work-to-rule campaigns in boards across the region, joined by a growing number of student walkouts, including hundreds Hamilton’s Sir John A MacDonald and Delta students this past Monday, and our Elementary teachers are slated to hold a one-day strike Monday.

Outside Andrea Horwath's Office on Hughson

Outside Andrea’s Office

What McGuinty accomplished with Bill 115, one of the last passed before he prorogued Parliament, was effectively pre-emptive back-to-work legislation. It interfered with contract talks before bargaining had even begun, and in the process seriously offended teachers. Given the history of teachers’ unions, this wasn’t likely to go down without a fight, and it’s quickly escalating as the strike deadline approaches.

Unlike previous labour strife, like the battle over Bill 160 in the Harris years, opponents have been much less successful at isolating and demonizing teachers. With students walking out and boards passing resolutions against the bill, the province is finding itself with a lot less friends this time around. It’s hard to have sympathy, I suppose, when these legislators haven’t shown up at their own workplace in months.

Also favouring teachers is the recent history of education-related activism. Similar battles with BC teachers didn’t help with the falling popularity of the province’s Liberal government. Teachers strikes in Chicago, similarly, quickly turned into a much broader movement and successfully challenged the city’s government. Then there’s the student strike in Quebec this past spring and summer, which turned into a resounding defeat for former Liberal Premier Jean Charest. And of course, there’s what happened in Oxaca, Mexico in 2006, where protests by their teachers’ union escalated into a (deadly) battle between the state and popular forces for control of Oxaca City. Simply put, teachers’ unions have become the ‘natural predator’ of provincial governments across the continent.

Gore Park

Gore Park

As with most battles like it, Bill 115 represents only the tip of a much larger iceberg. Austerity policies are being implemented at the federal and provincial levels, tossing thousands out of work and cutting many more off benefits such as EI. Most of those affected by these cuts don’t have anywhere near the level of union representation or influence that teachers do, making this fight and others like it a pivotal battle. It also illustrates why it’s so important that teachers are connecting with other affected groups – workers, First Nations, the unemployed etc (many of whom showed a presence today). Solidarity is the only way to combat agendas on this scale, and I’m heartened to see that it’s happening.

I passed the age, long ago, where more of my friends teach high school than attend it. Having very close friends and even house-mates who teach, I’ve seen how brutal a career it can be. I may have an incredibly (physically) taxing job, but the exhaustion I’ve seen in friend’s eyes after a long day in front of classes or grading papers is just as real. Perhaps the saddest of all, I’ve known too many teachers who’ve literally begged their kids not to follow in their footsteps. These aren’t “spoiled” or “entitled” workers, they’re people we depend on to help raise our kids.

Though I’ll always have my suspicions about state-sponsored education, it won’t be improved through cuts and neglect, or broad, sweeping policy changes from the province (standardized tests and curricula, etc). Like any organization, schools need input from those most affected, and that means the people who spend time their daily – teachers, students and support staff along with parents and community members. This isn’t just about budgets and salaries, it’s a question of who controls schools and education itself.

Negotiations between striking workers and company officials at CP rail broke down this afternoon, with the Teamsters walking away from the bargaining table. Federal labour minister Lisa Raitt is expected to table back-to-work legislation tomorrow. In response the NDP has threatened to filibuster and the union is organizing bus rides to Ottawa during the week.

Check back here for updates as they happen.

The CP Rail strike has now entered its second day. As nearly 5000 went out yesterday, the company issued temporary lay-off notices to 2000 support staff and threatened 1400 more if the strike continues to next Monday. Negotiations continue, but Minister Lisa Raitt is again musing about back-to-work legislation if a settlement isn’t reached soon, joined by a growing chorus of corporate leaders from the mining and fertiliser industries.

According to Raitt’s estimates, this strike could cost $540 million a week. The unstated but obvious point here is that these workers are fairly essential for over a half billion in commerce every week. Like every “essential service” which faces the threat of back-to-work legislation, CP workers are considered too “essential” to do without, but nowhere near “important” enough to afford basic workplace rights. If this company is so essential to Canada, why wasn’t more attention paid last week when it was being taken over by an American hedge fund?

I spoke with a striking CP worker last night, an old friend who’d already been out to the lines several times. He seemed a lot more concerned with changes to the working conditions than pay issues. While having your pay increases frozen and pension plan turned into a glorified RRSP isn’t pleasant, the realities of railroad work make the rest-time issues a matter of life or death. These trains (as he stated many time) weigh thousands of tons and are worth millions of dollars – given what happened recently in Burlington, is this something any of us want to gamble with?

CP workers operate on an on-call system which cycles available workers and jobs. They could be “called in” any time, day or night, and in the meantime know only their position in line. Proposed changes from the company would restrict the number of days a month workers can book off “the board” to three (and they’ll still work if they get called two minutes before that begins). When finishing jobs they’re called for, changes would also force employees to finish 12-hour shifts shunting cars or serving customers at their destinations, rather than returning home or to the local hotel. Finally, at present, workers can give notice during the first 5 hours of their shift to be off by the 10th if they suddenly find themselves in need of rest. These measures, my friend points out, were adopted in the wake of disasters like the derailment in Mississauga in the late 70s, which caused most of the city to be evacuated. Adding additional risks are ongoing cuts to track and engine maintenance, also in the hopes of squeezing extra efficiency out of the company. “In the 80s,” my friend points out “Hamilton had four ‘work gangs’, one for each yard, with shifts on 24 hours a day. Today there’s one for the whole city, and it’s only on call”.

Redundancy, by definition, is not “efficient”. In the short term, these measures usually seem silly, costly and pointless – in the long term, they’re often essential. Things only have to go wrong once to make years of tiny “efficiencies” seem tragically short-sighted. Last week’s takeover of the company of “activist investor” Bill Ackman and hedge fund Pershing Square was based on the “need” for more efficiency at CP. By the time something goes seriously wrong, they may well be long gone. Workers and neighbours, however, will still have to deal with the consequences.

Anybody who pays much attention to transportation and energy issues knows that North America is due for a major rail overhaul. We’re decades behind Europe and many far poorer parts of the world, and rising gas prices are now causing us to question our reliance on cross-continental trucking. Anybody who thinks we’re going to need less trains, tracks, engineers or conductors in 20 years is living in a fantasy world. Now is not the time to cut funding from rail networks.

For the sake of all my friends at CP and CN that they’re able to turn back some of these cuts. I’ve long been fascinated by the work they do, as a friend of many train-punks and the father of a train-obsessed little boy. Until recently, this was one of the few “good” working-class careers left open to people my age through union jobs rather than temp agencies (less so with CN…). This work is hard, hectic and incredibly dangerous – they have to work whether it’s 35 degrees above or below zero, with lives, businesses and millions of dollars of goods and equipment depending on them. I used to assume, these days, that this was all done electronically, but virtually any action still requires workers on the ground, de-coupling cars, switching tracks or loading goods, then inspecting kilometres of cars before travelling incredible distances.

These workers are essential, and that’s the best reason I can name to take their plight seriously.

The use of back-to-work legislation is now becoming very common in high-profile Canadian labour disputes. We’ve seen it in cases like like last year’s Canada Post strike, the ongoing contract dispute with BC’s teachers and mow with Harper’s move to block a strike/lockout of Air Canada workers next week. In each, employers took a hard line from the beginning, refusing to negotiate because they knew any attempted strike would be squashed by the state, leaving them winners by default. Canada Post actually locked out its workers, BC has stuck to a policy of “net-zero” increases in pay and benefits and Air Canada has just tabled a final offer four weeks into a six-month mediation process. In this way, employers are turning collective bargaining and strikes into an ugly cycle of provocation and blame, threatening to demolish decades of legally established rights.

When legislation like this appears, it tends to be cloaked in language of “essential services”. While this may be somewhat clear-cut when it comes to services like health care, water or power, it gets increasingly blurry as other public and even private services are included. Do people need schools to function every single day to survive? How about mail carriers? Baggage handlers? Where does this end? If barristas at coffee shops walked out, would they be ordered back for fear of the business world grinding to a halt?

Perhaps a good working definition of “essential service” would be “work which we take for granted”.

These workers are human beings. They have lives, bills and families. They, like us, only have a limited time on this planet and have devoted a serious chunk of it toward serving others, often for low wages in utterly awful conditions. This is not a reason to look down on someone, it’s a reason to be very thankful. Those attempting to demonize workers want us to forget that it’s these workers, far more than those who manage them, that bring us the goods and services we’ve come to rely on. Cutting their wages and slashing their benefits won’t get us a “better deal” because we’re workers too, and sooner or later will be effected by the contagious effects of falling wages and declining spending money.

Are strikes like this disruptive? Yes, that’s the point. When one side of a contract doesn’t can’t or won’t cough up the cash to satisfy the other, they don’t get their goods or services in return. Could anyone imagine Harper legislating a Ford dealership back “back to the table” for refusing to accept your offer of $50 for an Explorer? Of course not. That isn’t considered “disruptive”, even though the damage done by high prices in areas like housing, food and transportation produces far more misery among ordinary Canadians is far greater anything a strike could produce.

It’s often claimed that our economic woes are the result of “greedy workers” (especially in the public sector) demanding too much in wages. Because of unions which have grown “too powerful”, we’re told our industries are no longer “competitive”. These claims are blatantly dishonest. Average wages for the vast majority of Canadians, like those in America and elsewhere, have stagnated since the 1970s and union influence has been in decline since this eighties. Corporate profits, investment returns and the incomes of the top 1%, though, have grown incredibly. It’s obvious where the profits of the enormous growth in productivity we’ve seen over that time have gone, and this latest round of cuts can only really be understood as a part of that larger process.

The relatively high wages of Canadian workers have been crucial in supporting our consumer economy, tax base and the wide network of global production which has grown around us. It is economic lunacy to think that our economy can survive as more and more sectors plunge into temp industry wages. This will only increase the Wal-Mart-ization of our economy, making it impossible for people to afford anything but imported goods made in sweatshops, from giant branded warehouses staffed by workers making poverty wages. It will further erode taxpayers’ ability to support social services, for themselves and those less fortunate, turning many poorer areas further into ghettos with their own sets of expensive problems. Even more people will be forced into precarious work and crushing debts. Every time this happens it encourages more employers and industries to do the same in a “race to the bottom”. This isn’t a threat – it’s been happening for decades now, but it may soon get much worse.

“Essential services” have always been a battleground. For the establishment, they’re an important tool in keeping us dependent and compliant, by providing for our basic needs. For workers, though, the ability to shut them down has always threatened to bring governments to their knees, as seen in any general strike. This is why the government is working so hard to present a conflict between these workers and the general public. And why we, as the public, need to show a little solidarity right now if we all want to have a hope of standing up to these cuts.

If workers in “essential services” are so vital to our society’s function that they can’t be allowed to go on strike, doesn’t that suggest that they’re worth a decent wage?

Across Canada right now, educational institutions are in turmoil. In the wast, BC’s teachers are now on strike. Throughout Quebec, there’s been student strikes at universities across the province. On the east coast, Dalhousie faculty and staff are threatening to strike after this weekend. These conflicts rise out of sweeping eduction cuts now being witnessed across the country, another example of our nation’s new commitment to “austerity”

British Columbia
Public teachers in BC return to work today after striking since Monday and may walk out for another day days next week. The provincial government has maintained it’s position of net-zero increases in pay and benefits and refused to make any concessions. Teachers are now under threat of back-to-work legislation which would eliminate seniority systems, remove class size caps and place broad, sweeping limits on their ability to strike or protest for a “cooling off” period extending for the rest of the year. A rally was held yesterday in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery and on Tuesday in front of Victoria’s legislature. Job actions such as work-to-rule are planned to continue as long as possible.

After attempting to substantially raise tuition fees, student strikes broke out across the province with rumours of over 120 000 high school and post-secondary students now participating. Yesterday tensions erupted as protesters rallied around a number of government buildings and attempted to enter the Loto-Quebec headquarters (which included University administration offices) and were attacked by riot police with batons, tear gas and pepper spray. This isn’t the first time police have been called in to remove marchers from blocking the Jaques Cartier Bridge late last month, also with pepper spray.

Over eight hundred professors at Dalhousie University are set to strike Monday, very possibly followed by support workers soon after. This comes in a city awash with such actions at the moment, as health-care and transit workers are also striking.

Locally, Premier McGuinty is now demanding a wage-freeze from teachers, backed by threats of implementing cuts suggested in a recent report by economist Don Drummond, such as eliminating all-day kindergarten and class-size caps. Unions have requested a meeting with the premier, but been rejected.

On the national scale, word is that Harper plans to unveil the new “austerity budget” at the end of this month. Air Canada workers are threatening to go on strike next week, with Harper already talking back-to-work legislation, much like with Canada Post. With austerity likely to strike at provincial levels as well, given troubling signs like the Drummond Report in Ontario, all signs point to a brutal year ahead for Canadian workers.

Over the past week two announcements have dealt crippling blows to Southern Ontario’s manufacturing sector. First word came that US Steel had no plans to re-start the blast furnace at their Hamilton operations (formerly Stelco), leading to around 200 layoffs as soon as the workers have enough days to qualify for EI. Then came the announcement that Caterpillar Inc. plans to close London’s Electro-Motive Diesel plant where workers are have been locked out sine the beginning of this year after refusing to accept a 55% cut in pay and benefits.

There are many similarities here – in both cases keystone employers have been bought out by foreign, industry-dominating multinationals, who then moved to lock out workers unless they agreed to unprecedented compromises when it comes to wages, pensions and benefits. Like usual, the new owners claimed they were only trying to update plants which weren’t “competitive” any more, but that begs the question – why did they buy such “uncompetitive” plants?

Stelco’s saga began almost a decade ago as the old owners filed for bankruptcy after being left with a colossal shortfall in their pension plans (mainly because they hadn’t paid into it for years). The workers fought this in court, arguing that there was no evidence the company was actually insolvent. By the time it was being argued in court, not only had steel prices risen significantly, but Dofasco, across the street, had become the continent’s most profitable mill. Nevertheless, the court approved a partial buyout by venture capitalists Tricap Management, who soon sold it off to US Steel.

Electro-Motive Diesel was sold by General Motors to private equity firms Berkshire Partners and Greenbriar Equity in 2004, who sold it to Caterpillar in the summer of 2010, incorporating it into Caterpillar’s Progress Rail empire. Though EMD London has been operating at quite profitably until now, the new collective agreement was sprung on them in the lead-up to new years day.

These cases, and those like them, show how devastating these kind of investments can be to the real-world communities they represent. It’s fairly obvious from both timelines that neither US Steel nor Caterpillar had any intention of keeping these plants in operation. Rather, they were far more interested in contracts they could fill with cheaper labour elsewhere, the opportunity to shut down competitors and generally to weaken the bargaining power of workers everywhere.

In the wakes of these layoffs, many will be left with only a pittance. Given today’s unemployment rates, it’s likely that many (especially those who’re older) won’t find new jobs soon, and most of those who do will see far less in wages and benefits. People will have to ask themselves whether they can seriously manage to keep up with their loans – and may have to start giving up their cars, homes and even declaring bankruptcy, spreading the pain further. Many of these sacrifices, such as selling cars and tools to make mortgage or rent payments, will only further limit their options. These workers didn’t “slack off” at school or piss their lives away on drinking and drugs – they learned a trade and devoted decades of their lives to careers they thought were secure. These jobs were not easy or safe – to quote one retire during one of many attempts to loot the pensions of former Stelco workers “do you know how many of my friend died in those furnaces?”

How much worse does this have to get before we admit that the “class war” is real, and that most of us are losing?

Given these kinds of actions, it’s becoming harder and harder to claim that capitalism creates high living standards. Between the massive stockpiles of capital built over the past few decades and the campaigns of global integration and deregulation which allow them to go anywhere on earth and throw that weight around. Capitalism is evolving in an increasingly predatory direction, attacking both public and private benefits with increasing zeal, and growing more power powerful each time it achieves it. That the London closure was announced two days after Indiana passed a controversial anti-union “right-to-work” law is no accident. Coupled with efforts like those seen last year when Wisconsin sought to ban public-sector unions, or Canada’s postal lockout and subsequent back-to-work legislation, workers are being attacked everywhere. Employers are on the offensive, and workers can no longer afford to to play only defence. The fact that so many of these struggles are lockouts rather than strikes only goes to show that even if we don’t act up, we can still be singled out.

Public anger is already beginning to grow into something more, especially in London. Mark’s Work Warehouse has announced, amid pressure, that it will pull Caterpillar “CAT” boots from its shelves nationwide. Better yet, the CAW publicly threatened today to “occupy” the plant. Could a factory occupation like those in Europe or South America work in Canada? The CAW did it to Caterpillar in 1991, during a similar conflict in Brampton, and it worked then. Given the enormous unrest which has swept our continent lately, there’s probably never been a better time to re-start the tradition. Beyond the obvious revolutionary potential (moreso, arguably, than just about any other “protest”), it makes this current corporate strategy prohibitively dangerous for the same reasons, putting workers in a far better bargaining position. If corporations such as Caterpillar had to fear that buying companies out to break unions and shut down competitors would instead result in unions restarting those plants as new competitors (not just to their company, but also their class), they’d no doubt think twice before trying it again.

These shut-downs affect all of us. By driving down the price of labour (wages) as well as organizations which represent our bargaining rights (unions), the effects will ripple through the economy around them, forcing even more of us into low-waged precarious work, if we can find any at all. As a share of the economy, corporate profits are scraping all-time highs while workers see their lowest share ever. Unless we start really fighting back, this is only going to get worse.

Very recently, at a Chinese electronics factory, a hundred and fifty workers got up on a roof and threatened to commit mass suicide if they didn’t receive the agreed-upon severance which the company had reneged on. Thankfully, a local mayor talked them down. Foxconn, which employs over a million workers and makes goods for Apple, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard has had repeated problems recently with widely reported atrocious working conditions and resulting suicides, as have many similar companies. The Foxconn plant in question made X-Box 360 components and games. This dramatic incident shows how serious the question of working conditions behind our gadgets are, and increasingly evidence is coming out to show that the plight of these workers was far from unique.

Apple, in particular, has been plagued with such news. Their cutting-edge, overpriced, hipster-appeal doesn’t take well to images of 13-year-old girls working 14-hour shifts. The working conditions recently documented on This American Life include pay of $0.70/hr, employees as young as twelve, dormitories and even one man who died after working for 34 hours straight. Henry Blodget recently made up a list, and it makes it clear that the conditions behind a new iPad are little different than those behind Nike shoes, hellish and colossal sweatshop environments (one Foxconn plant employs over 400 000) where few human rights apply.

Beyond the immediate assembly of these goods are the resources they’re made with, especially rare-earth minerals like ‘coltan’, notorious for being illegally mined in African wars. On the other end is the global issue of ‘E-waste’, where boat-loads of first-world scrap electronics (which, given lead solders and batteries are often “toxic waste”) to impoverished third-world communities where they’re melted down in open bonfires for the traces of metals like gold and copper, used in circuit-boards and other components.

I’m not one to downplay the (real) usefulness of digital technologies. And I must admit my new (android) phone is pretty nifty, and no less annoying or expensive than my last. The thing is, it’s not really a phone so much as it is a tiny computer, and as decades of experience in electronics has taught us, making them smaller doesn’t make the process any easier or less resource-intensive. If the quintessential consumer good of 20th century industrial society was the automobile, then the tablet computer is rapidly becoming the best example of the 21st. In so many ways this process is just as colossal, complex and toxic, yet all the precision machining takes place on tiny pieces of silicone. As these gadgets get smaller and more portable, their lifespans drop considerably. The laptop I’m writing this on is now in its sixth year, but pocket-sized cell-phones go, two years takes a lot of luck and care, to say nothing of the additional risks of losing, breaking or having one stolen.

Also, while these devices have a lot of promising uses, this isn’t something that companies like Apple have exactly…fostered. By strictly regulating which programs (“Apps”) can run on their platforms, they’re able to exact enormous licensing and royalty fees from buyers and programmers while restricting our ability to get the full use out of these devices. The obvious example of this would be the ability to use wireless netowrks to place calls over VIOP rather than cell-phone-towers to place calls, which would save us all a lot of money – something Apple immediately took steps to prevent from the first iTouch units which weren’t even phones (and many cellular providers got very rich as a result). Another (even earlier) example would be the fact that “video iPods” were nothing special – the program would run on nearly any (cheaper) version at the time. These restrictions extend the kind of privileges that would be extended to the owner of a private establishment into our own pockets, onto our own desks and throughout all our airwaves. They offer less options at higher prices, with the only real consolation being that they’re fashionable – sounds like a nightclub to me. When the iFridge hits the market, offering only three brands of beer at five dollars a can and no ability to refill it myself, I think I’ll give it a pass.

I look forward to a day when electronics aren’t so disposable and toxic. It’s not impossible to produce circuit boards or microchips locally (etching and lasers are the best options I know of). In time we’ll get over our need for ultra-miniaturized gadgets and refocus our effort on stable, long-lasting devices. Soon, likely (as China has already bought up most of the world’s spare supply of rare-earths), we’ll have to start making do with more common materials, the way we’re now having to redesign machines around a growing global shortage of neodynium magnets (again, China). Some of that work is already beginning with the Arduino and other examples of open-source microchips, and much more is taking root as people learn the skills needed to work with them. While some of these machines may have less raw power than their industrially-built competitors, they more than make up for it by being ‘programmable’ down to the circuit pathways on the boards and chips, a far more powerful and efficient option than installing “apps”. Then and in the meantime, if we care about the world around us and the people in it (even those we’ll never meet), perhaps it’s time to learn to be a little more happy with what we have. Modern phones, tablets and laptops have more power than needed to run a space program and if we really took the time to learn to really use them.

A recent article from The Economist just caught my eye (and ire), raising a lot of questions about work and technology. As artificial intelligence matures quickly, it’s going to put entirely new fields of employment at risk, as machines can no longer just do things, but are learning to think as well. This threatens white collar jobs the way robots and assembly lines threatened blue-collar employment, and truthfulfully, many people probably have a lot to worry about. Some have theorized around 50 million jobs at risk, and that’s nothing to scoff at.

What bugs me so much about The Economist’s article is how little economics are present in it. There’s lots of references to bestselling authors, but few actual numbers or theories besides what you’d find in an update on the unemployment rate. A perfect example of this ignorance shown by the Economist article would be the constant misuse of the term “Luddite”, as well as their laughable history of the movement. “Ned Ludd” (if he ever existed) and his associates began smashing the new weaving frames not only because they were losing their jobs, but because the new technology was destroying their art. Though more textiles could be produced, they were of lower quality and these new frames were threatening to flood the market with cheap, crappy fabrics. This wasn’t just a simplistic revolt against technology and progress – it was a rebellion against early industrialism. At its height, the British government had to pull troops back from the European mainland, as it had more soldiers battling the Luddites at home than Napoleons’s armies abroad. The only “Luddite Fallacy” here is the author’s unwillingness to look up a word they use so many times in a piece (including the title).

Does “technology” (on the whole) destroy “jobs” (on the whole)? Of course not. Ask any anthropologist – the amount of work, on average, in a society, tends to increase with the level of technological development, not decrease. We work significantly more than medieval peasants (where roughly half the days of the year were holidays or festivals), who worked more than our “cave man” ancestors. The average hunter gatherer today “works” a little over two hours a day, and since said societies only now exist on the fringes of habitable lands. Even more recently, productivity has more than doubled over the past half century, and yet we don’t work any less.

Why does this happen? Because technologies require work to produce them. We may have dishwashers, dryers and fax machines, but we have to work to buy them. Some studies have shown that when time at work is taken into account, drivers aren’t moving any faster, on average, than pedestrians. Moreover, because these technologies and jobs all function under capitalism, we must work many hours for each hour spent actually making cars, dryers or fax machines (and of course, the companies which produce them).

The issue of capital is very crucial here. They touch on it when they ask “what happens when capital becomes labour?”, but don’t go any further. This has, of course, been happening since the dawn of the industrial age and it’s hard to see how The Economist could miss that. Just as the fallacy of labour-saving technologies is absolutely standard for any first-year anthropology class, the use of technology by capital against labour makes up a very large chunk of any first year labour studies course. Technology, especially in manufacturing, destroyed millions of jobs over the last century and that’s hard to miss. What’s harder to miss is what kinds of jobs were destroyed, what kinds of jobs they were replaced by, and how this transformed the relationship between labour and capital. The use of technology by industrialists to break the associations of skilled workers is legendary. The term used most often is literally “de-skilling”, as a means of simplifying tasks to the point where almost anybody could do it, thus making all workers replaceable. This didn’t neccessarily mean there was less demand for labour, but it did lead to a clear decline in living standards for a lot of people and trades. This has never just been about “technology” or “jobs”, but certain technologies and certain jobs

So how can technology eliminate so many jobs and yet not put us all out of work? Because it creates new jobs, too.

All of this can be described very simply by supply and demand – when an increase in capital makes labour more productive, it puts a “downward pressure” on wages. This happens because labour becomes effectively less scarce, and therefore less valuable. An apple that used to take three minutes to pick now takes three seconds, and therefore there’s sixty times less work for apple-pickers at current levels of apple demand. You could assume that we’d all buy more, cheaper apples, but that assumes a very “elastic” demand for apples (that we’d all eat as many as we could afford, no matter what), as well as trusting in the owners of the orchard to pass the savings onto customers (instead of keeping it as profit, or spending it on robot apple-pickers). This would be a disaster for apple-pickers as well as many others, but it wouldn’t necessarily lead to less work. Why? Because of supply and demand. Work, in general, would become cheaper as other industries were flooded by unemployed apple-pickers, and other workers could no longer threaten their bosses that, “if you don’t pay me well I’ll leave and become an apple picker”. This cheapening of labour would make workers more attractive to employers, who could now afford to pay them to do things which never would have been practical before (like peeling apples or making sauce).

In the same way that cheap labour generates jobs, cheap products generate consumption. As far as technologies go, this creates something called the “Jeavons Paradox”. Initially created to describe the introduction of new coal and steam power technologies into early industries, it’s now often used to describe why more fuel-efficient cars don’t save gas. Sound paradoxical? It isn’t – the lower cost of driving, per kilometre, generally means that people drive more. The same thing happened with steam engines and nearly every technology like them since. They may be able to save us work in theory, but in practice, they generally create much more.

In short, even if robots replaced every single one of us tomorrow, we probably wouldn’t ever have to worry about running out of work. The resulting boom in unemployment would make nearly everything cheap enough to hire somebody for. This has already happened to a large degree, which is why so many of our primary industries (farming, forestry, mining etc) have been replaced by service-sector work (telemarketers, cashiers and Wal-Mart greeters). Even with minimum wage laws, there’s never much of a shortage, as America’s vast working population of illegal immigrants proves… just because there’s no “good jobs” doesn’t mean you can’t be put to work.

The question is, do we really need more “work”? Or is “work” more of a proxy demand for food, housing and other consumption? If so, do we need more work if it isn’t providing those things? And on the other side of it, do we really need more “things” if each of those things is doing less to meet these needs (food with less nutrition, goods which need to be replaced more often etc.)? Does this raise our standard of living at all, or make our lives any easier? Of course not. It is, however, very profitable. If we’ll work more for less, or spend more for less, the result in simple mathematical terms is “profit”, and that’s why it happens.

There’s a disconnection between work and production which seldom gets mentioned. Workers are not the economy, and neither are consumers. The banks, corporations and institutions which control the economy have their owm accounts – when we work, we support their survival, not our own. The food, housing and other goods we get from them are at their discretion, and they have no obligation to give us more just because more is being produced. We’re their clients, and at their mercy. As The Economist notes, it takes less than 2% of our population to grow food – given some of the technologies available to us today, we could all easily work as little or less than our ancestors – in theory. But that would require far more humble lifestyles and much less humble paycheques. Sadly, while we have the technology, we certainly don’t have the economy.

The personal computer revolution really began to take hold thirty years ago. It’s lead to an explosion of productivity, and whole host of new jobs, industries and nifty consumer products. You can throw globalization, the introduction of women en masse to the workforce (and youth, and elders), and an incredible amount of global corporate consolidation into that timeline, too. What hasn’t it done? Led to us working any less or making any more per hour, at least for the vast majority of the population. It hasn’t led to us using less of any natural resources. According to conventional economic wisdom, this should make us all unfathomably rich. It didn’t. The point of all of this was to make money, not share it, and that’s exactly what happened. A few got very rich, and everyone else stagnated or sank even deeper into debt.

The missing element isn’t just the technology, it’s who owns it. As long as we don’t, improvements in the technology will only diminish our own significance. If, on the other hand, we own and control them, then we can receive the benefits when they multiply our own productive abilities. This would give us far more control over which technologies were used, and the ability to reject those which are just too expensive. A revolution in the technologies we use could go a long way toward achieving this transformation, whether it takes a “high-tech” or “low-tech” route. On the other hand, a technological transformation can’t do it alone. Whether we’re buying iPads or trendy handmade knick-knacks, as long as we’re still just buying them. Technologies are never separate from the society using them, and technology alone can never set us free.

Labour unrest is spreading quickly in these days of “austerity”, and it’s beginning to hit home. Canada Post workers, who had been rotating job actions across the country, were locked out nationally this morning. Air Canada workers are also striking at the moment. And in Hamilton, the threat of a local strike of city workers is looming closer. If there’s no deal by Friday, we’ll begin to see garbage collection, parking enforcement and other services suffer soon. Federally, Harper is threatening to use back-to-work legislation to settle the Air Canada and Canada Post strikes.

As job action ramps up, so is the anti-union content in media outlets like The Spectator. On top of snide comments and weighted conclusions in the above articles, Howard Elliot posted a lengthy editorial criticizing the locked-out steelworkers from the USW 1005 for occupying the harbour’s lift bridge and stopping coke shipments from the former Stelco plant from being shipped to other US Steel facilities. There’s also this letter to the editor which accuses postal workers of being “coddled” for having benefits and a starting wage of $24/hour (which, by the way, is the national average for men this year). Of course, not all of it is this slanted (Emma Rielly’s piece, for instance), but you’ll rarely see other content without also seeing these reminders of the prevailing anti-labour orthodoxy.

Attacks on Unions taking job action are fairly common in the press. They’ll almost always write many heart-wrenching human interest stories about the “victims” of the strike, those who can’t have their garbage removed, or cars ticketed. They’ll focus on how “unreasonable” the demands of unions are and how “out of touch” these workforces are with the average Joe. They’ll muse about how unions are “shooting themselves in the foot” by turning away customers and hurting their company or industry. Absent from these discussions will be any real conception of labour history or broader questions of labour-relations. You’d never guess from these articles that most of the world is engulfed in similar brutal labour struggles right now. And of course, they’ll pretend that their arguments are based in “economic science”, and that these cuts in wages will paradoxically lead to “more prosperity”.

Wages are not a zero-sum-game – you can’t get more for yourself by taking from others. In this economy, nobody is an island. Cutting the wages of others in order to get a better deal for yourself doesn’t work if your income is also paid as wages. Not only does it undersell your own labour, but it forces others to work more to make ends meet, which floods the market with cheap work. It limits people’s spending and drives a demand for low-quality (often foreign) goods which destroys other local jobs. Creating a political climate where wage cuts are popular only makes this easier. This is, of course, why they’re doing it – and why higher-waged workers with strong unions like CUPE or the USW are being targeted. Wages are all about bargaining power, and if they can break that, then they’ll be able to make much larger cuts in the long run. Those who are resisting these cuts are fighting for all of us, and they deserve our sympathy, support and solidarity.

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