I recently took a job as an employment counselor in a small town in southwest Nova Scotia. I was hired just as the "major" employer in town, a mill with a workforce of 300, pulled its annual, "we're gonna shut down the mill if you don't give us everything we want," stunt. So I started seeing folks who knew their jobs were up for grabs, but just weren't exactly sure when it was all going to be grinding to a halt.
After years as a working freelancer and more years as a barely-working freelancer, I was pretty familiar with being unemployed. I was also familiar with "employers" who didn't like to pay their bills, who ignored invoices and of course who always demanded great work, on a moment's notice. I'd learned to hate them for the parasites they are.
Now I hear similar stories from the entirely-blue-collar workers we try to serve. You take a job at the local mega-mart, working maybe 30 hours a week. After a couple of years, your hours get cut, then cut again. Meanwhile, the company continues hiring, bringing in new staff, then setting them on the same cyce of underemployment. Frantic to make something of a living, people decide that what they need is to get retrained, in order to take another minimum-wage job they've heard will provide them with full-time employment. People are trying to switch to the "good jobs" without ever leaving town, which is a big mistake because there ARE no good jobs in town. I know--I got the last good one.
People blame themselves for being undereducated, but the fact is that most of the available jobs are geared to the undereducated. On the flip side are people who refuse to drive the 40 miles to the nearest bigger town where they might actually be able to get full-time work. They cite gas prices as being prohibitive. I ask them, "Did you do the math?" They say "No." I say, "I really think you should."
Part of the problem is the workforce is uneducated: many of them can't calculate the potential costs and benefits of working 45 minutes from home. They think in black and white, and believe what they're told, which makes them easy prey for companies who don't give a damn if their employees can make the rent or not. They fall victim to weak unions, lazy politicos and usurious employers.
The real problem as I see it, is the employers. They're so concerned with the bottom line, they are driving people from the town. They're so unconcerned with any ethical view of how one should treat employees, they are perfectly capable of cheating them, over and over again, one generation after the next. And because there seems to be no other choice, the workforce lets it happen again and again.
I wonder what would happen if every working person belonged not to a trade union, but to one single working person's union. A group of people who refused to take any job unless a contract stated a certain number of hours would be worked each week, for a certain wage and benefits.
Who wouldn't allow their friends and neighbours to be taken advantage of in the workplace. Who would walk out on unsafe workplaces and bad managers and companies that pay dividends to stockholders by ruining the lives of their employees.
Who, as a group would boycott the grocery store until hiring policies changed. Who would carpool to the next bigger town to find jobs there, sharing gas money and the long, boring drive.
I wonder when the people who actually do the work will also reap the rewards of their labour. I wonder what I can do to help them get what they need.