Volume 41, Number 6: November/December 2007

Manufacturing Jobs

“Globalization” has become the easy explanation for any disaster that befalls. In itself, however, this generally obscures as much as it explains. The crisis in Canadian manufacturing is a case in point.

Recent job losses in Canadian manufacturing have commonly been linked to shifts in production to low-wage countries, especially China. In the highly publicized job losses in auto, the alleged culprit is Japan’s unfair trading practices. To the extent that corporations have chosen to escape standards set here by reaching for greater exploitation abroad, the issue is not “globalization” but the undemocratic power of these companies. To the extent that imports from Asia have adversely impacted specific firms and sectors, it’s worth noting that, overall, 85 per cent of our trade is not with the Third World, but with the developed capitalist countries. As for auto, it’s not so much imports from Japan that have caused job losses at the Big Three as competition from non-union Japanese plants inside Canada and the U.S.; and, in auto parts, China’s share of Canadian import is still only about two per cent (against 85 to ninety per cent from the U.S.).

Further, over the past fifteen years, while manufacturing employment is indeed down, the output of Canadian manufacturing hasn’t fallen, but rather has increased in real terms by almost fifty per cent. This shifts the focus from globalization to how productivity is shared. Why have productivity gains been a threat, rather than liberating workers through reduced work-time? And if these productivity improvements “freed” workers to move elsewhere, as they have, why is it automatically assumed that these new jobs – many of which are local services that can’t be “globalized” away – must be worse-paying jobs, rather than jobs that could, through unionization, provide decent incomes and conditions?

It is true that Canadian manufacturing has recently suffered from the high Canadian dollar, and that this reflects a growing global demand for Canadian resources. But the larger issue, here, is not primarily globalization in the abstract, but our relationship to the U.S.; it’s the massive inflows of capital to the Alberta Tar Sands that have most affected our dollar, and the driver of these flows has been the oil-security needs of the U.S. The result is that we are becoming even further integrated into the U.S. empire, that our manufacturing base is being weakened in favour of resource extraction, and – as interest rates are kept up to limit price inflation in Alberta – unemployment is increased elsewhere and the high dollar is reinforced. Last but not least, the environmental crisis is frighteningly magnified.

Some have gone further and suggested that, given environmental constraints, we couldn’t really expect to keep making more “things,” anyways. We would phrase this issue differently. Aside from the question of distribution (a good many people still do, in fact, need more “things”), the environmental crisis demands a change in everything about how society is organized. This will mean transforming existing skills and capacities into making different kinds of things, rather than just more things.

As workers struggle to defend the jobs they have, we stand with them in solidarity. But we also insist that trying to hang on to the old world can only go so far; it is not possible without more radical changes, and is in any case neither sustainable nor desirable – even at its best it constricted and distorted working-class potentials.

What we must collectively ask is this: Beyond environmental limits, what kind of society do we ultimately want? Is it at all possible to have such a society without a radical transformation in social relations and the nature of power in our society? Since this means challenging the social system we live under – capitalism – how can we begin to organize ourselves for that challenge?

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