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Brave New Workforce

COVID-19Labour

LeeAnna Murphy, Spangdahlem Military Clothing Sales store manager, disinfects her work area at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, April 30, 2020. Photo courtesy Spangdahlem Air Base.

On May 23, an article appeared in the Financial Post, entitled “How to prepare yourself as Canada’s unemployment rate rises.” Targeting an audience of nervous and insecure middle class professionals, it offers some tips on how to survive in the changed reality of a “job market [that] will look very different post-COVID.” What is most striking and appalling about the supposedly helpful hints offered by the Post is the basic assumption on which they are based. The premise of the article is that record levels of unemployment in Canada (13 percent at time of writing) and a highly uncertain economic future augurs a massive shift in the balance of forces in the job market, giving employers the virtually limitless ability to pick and choose. On this basis the Post sets out its ideas on how readers might refine their skills so as to outdo the competition in a scramble to curry favour with the omnipotent bosses who will hold sway over the post-pandemic brave new workforce.

The article comes complete with a set of resources available to the job seeker scrambling to become more marketable in this cut-throat future. It seems that a veritable mini industry has been assembled for this purpose. Résumé software is on offer. For a mere $39.00 US you can be schooled in the mysteries of “project management done the way the professionals do it.” The range of purchases needed to convince employers to give you a second look includes a one-year subscription to the ominously named “FlexJobs.” This, apparently, “gives you access to 30,000 hand-screened remote, freelance, part-time, and flexible jobs in over 50 career categories.” “Career” seems a bit of a grandiose term to apply to the Malthusian struggle for survival in the post-pandemic job market for which the Post is preparing its readers.

Elastic workforce

The Post, of course, is directing these nostrums to those who occupy a relatively privileged place in the workforce. The advice it offers to those who are part of the new “WFH (work from home) culture” is utterly irrelevant to the great mass of working class people who have been locked down without wages or have had to carry on as essential workers during the pandemic at considerable risk. However, if the Post’s vision of the future is a harsh and ceaseless struggle to find employment, even for middle class professionals, for working class people, things look far worse. The state of complete employer domination envisaged here means, for them, a desperate scramble to find a spot in a just-in-time elastic workforce, with the threat of unemployment permanently looming.

The neoliberal decades have already moved us a very long way in this direction, of course. The growth of low-wage precarious work has been rapid and widespread. In 2018, the Library of Parliament presented an overview of precarious work in Canada, observing that: “In total, it is possible to estimate that between 27 percent and 45 percent of all Canadian workers do not have what we traditionally think of as stable full-time jobs.” However, the loss of working class bargaining power that produced this situation took place in a period of relatively incremental neoliberal regression. The global economic slump unleashed by the pandemic threatens us with something far worse.

There is an instructive example of workers rendered powerless in the history of the early 20th century. Militant longshore unions that emerged in the 1930s ultimately wrested some bargaining power over wages and working conditions from employers, but “before the union won hiring halls, the method of hiring was the “shape-up”, where longshore workers gathered on the docks, a company agent would show up, and the workers would vie with each other, trying to get picked by the agent for a day’s work.” When I worked for British Railways in the 1970s, I recall an older worker telling me about his experiences as part of a track maintenance crew in the Great Depression years. On one occasion, he complained to an inspector about some dangerous working conditions and was told, “If you don’t like this job, lad, there are a hundred men lined up outside who would be only too happy to take it off your hands.” As the Post article puts it, “there’s a lot of competition in the job market today.”

Resistance

In the period ahead, we can be sure that employers, with the full support of governments, will argue that an emergency situation exists and that expectations must be lowered in order to further the goal of economic recovery. In a glimpse of what is to come, Franklin Holtforster, the president and CEO of Ottawa-based Colliers Project Leaders, was captured on video trying, illegally, to pressure the company’s workers into giving up their vacation pay to forestall job losses. We may be sure that the Ontario Jobs and Recovery Committee set up by Doug Ford’s Conservative government in Ontario will put the interests of business well ahead of workers’ rights and press for a recovery of profits at the expense of working class living standards.

There is, however, an alternative to the powerless workforce in which the workers have no collective strength and individual survival can only come at the expense of one’s fellow workers in a contest to find favour with all powerful employers. It will involve a wholesale rejection of the Financial Post’s view of things. The point is to move in the opposite direction and place the emphasis on collective working class action that challenges the power of employers and their bid to use the present crisis as an opportunity to gain the whip hand over workers. We must respond to the unfolding employer offensive with a wave of working class militancy. Unions must be ready to mobilize their members and redouble efforts to organize precarious workers and those in the gig economy. Moreover, trade unions must give full support to community based struggles, such as the fight against mass tenant evictions that loom over us as the lockdown comes to an end.

Clearly any notion that no resistance is possible in the face of the crisis that engulfs us has been swept aside by the inspiring uprising in the United States and the wave of international solidarity that has followed the racist police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The powerless and atomized workforce that the Financial Post would like to take as the model for the future can and must be rejected. Working class solidarity must not merely be nurtured but taken to a whole new level in the struggle for a socially just post-pandemic future shaped by our collective resistance.

John Clarke is a writer and retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). Follow his tweets at @JohnOCAP and blog at johnclarkeblog.com.

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