NAFTA Kills: Who will Speak for the Working Class?

Photo by Ben Goff

A recent report out of the US raises questions about politicians’ (in Canada and the US) obsession with the state of the middle class and highlights why Donald Trump won the US election. It is a sobering picture and an scathing indictment of neo-liberalism – particularly so-called free trade. While the authors don’t say so explicitly the conclusion is inescapable: NAFTA kills.

The report, by economists Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton (winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for economics) talks about “deaths of despair” and reveals that: “An epidemic of overdoses, suicides and alcohol-related illness is causing a surge in deaths among white Americans with a high-school education or less that now makes them more likely to die early than those who are black or Hispanic…”

The report reinforces many other studies documenting the devastating impact of nearly three decades of deindustrialization (read NAFTA) and automation on Americans with high school education or less. According to Dr. Case: “This doesn’t seem to be just about income. This is about accumulating despair for these people.” The numbers are hard to credit: “In 1999 white men and women aged 50-54 with a high school education had a mortality rate 30 per cent lower than black Americans. In 2015 it was 30 per cent higher.” (There was no indication that the situation for Blacks and Hispanics actually improved.) The numbers are similar for all age groups from 25 – 64.

The gravity of the changes are unique to the US where deindustrialization has been most dramatic and where slack labour standards, low unionization rates, a tattered social safety net and expensive health insurance make less educated workers extremely vulnerable. According to the two researchers Canada along with Britain, the UK, Australia and Germany are still seeing declining death rates.

But they don’t say why. But if you look at many of the conditions faced by working Canadians it is easy to conclude that we are headed in the same direction, just more slowly. Maybe we have time to prevent ‘death by despair’ in Canada but someone had better begin speaking up for those most vulnerable. Both the Liberals and NDP federally (and provincially) have been wringing their hands about the “shrinking middle class” – failing to notice that when the middle class shrinks its ranks drop down the economic scale to join the precariate.

As I listed last November, Canada now boasts: “…the largest income gap between rich and poor since the late 1920s; incomes that have been stagnant since the early 1980s; the second-highest proportion of low-wage jobs in the OECD (after the U.S.); the highest personal debt-to-income ratio in Canadian history … the continued loss of tens of thousands of the best industrial jobs; welfare rates that deliberately punish the poor…” and an EI system accessible to less than a third of workers who pay into it.

The affects are devastating. While we do not have death by despair we have an epidemic of anxiety and depression – grinding economic insecurity, widespread abuse of workers’ rights because governments refuse to enforce labour standards, the virtual collapse of the kind of family life that was the norm forty years ago and levels of job dissatisfaction not seen at any other time in the post-war period.

The 2012 National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada authored by professors Linda Duxbury of Carleton University and Christopher Higgins of the University of Western Ontario it reports on the (ever-worsening) work-life imbalance of thousands of individual workers.

“Almost two-thirds of us are working more than 45 hours a week — 50 per cent more than two decades ago. Work weeks are more rigid, with flex-time arrangements dropping by a third in the past 10 years…. More than half of the survey’s respondents took work home with them, putting in an average of seven extra hours a week from home. To top it off, only 23 per cent of working Canadians are highly satisfied with life. That’s half as many as in 1991.”

There is nothing to suggest that things have gotten anything but worse in the intervening five years. Just this week a report on bankruptcy out of Ontario reveals that the demographics of indebtedness are changing: “…shifting to seniors with fixed incomes, single parents and millennials burdened with student-loan debt. Forced to cover debt with more debt just to pay for basic expenses, low-income earners are using payday loans and filing for insolvency at historic rates.” Twenty-five percent of filers – and 38 percent of those under 30 – rely on payday loans with astronomical interest rates,

If the recent Liberal budget is any indication the state has no intention of easing the burden on the young people, ensuring that the precariate will continue to grow. An analysis of the budget by Generation Squeeze, an NGO advocating for younger generations, points out that the budget earmarked $23,000 per person aged 65 and over and $5,500 per Canadian under the age of 45. While that may be a somewhat crude comparison any talk about fixing inequality without providing universal childcare, low or free tuition, and a reversal of the “labour flexibility” measures introduced almost 25 years ago by Paul Martin is insulting.

Governments listen to those wish the loudest voice and for three decades that has been Bay Street. There was a time when organized labour spoke loudly, too. It was responsible for successfully fighting for UI/EI, social assistance, public pensions, fair taxes, workers’ compensation and workers’ rights through enforced labour standards.

One of those standards was the forty hour week. Maybe the union movement should come out of its long slumber with a new slogan: “Bring back the 40 hour week.” Anyone? Anyone?

Murray Dobbin, now living in Powell River, BC has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over forty years.

This article originally appeared on Counterpunch.org.

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