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Editorial: Giving workers a seat at the tables of power in the industry

It’s better for all of us if we include workers in our decision-making.


August 19, 2020
By Patrick Flannery

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Patrick Flannery, Editor, Glass Canada

The New Class War, a book by Matthew Lind, offers an insight into what is going on in worldwide politics that I think is bang-on, and pretty relevant to our industry. Essentially, he argues that politics is about the exercise of power in three spheres – government, economics and culture – and that an “overclass” of educated urban elites has established a stranglehold on this power in developed countries, upending a more egalitarian post-WWII arrangement that included the working class in the running of society. Since this is a business magazine, I’ll focus on the economics.

Lind points to the importance of trade unions and local industry associations in the decades following the war, remembering that they were included in three-way negotiations with governments and corporate owners on policy, including things like minimum wages, sector wages and industry regulations. The arrangement led to the creation of the modern middle class throughout the Western world. But, in Lind’s telling, the overclass only reluctantly agreed to this power-sharing as a way to restart the postwar economy, and, in the ‘70s, began to push back, using issues like stagflation, the oil crisis, inflation and the need to counter Japan’s rising industrial strength as wedges to drive “neoliberal” ideas.

We were slower here in Canada than the U.S. to accept neoliberalism, but I remember well the rising tide of rhetoric in the ‘90s against Crown corporations, unions, regulation, welfare…essentially any application of taxpayer dollars that was under government control. These arguments were predicated on two assumptions: that public debts and deficits would eternally drive up the tax bill until the economy was ruined, and that public agencies couldn’t organize a two-car parade. Neither of these assumptions were (or are) wrong in the broad sense. But by demanding total freedom for markets and corporations and sidelining organizations with a more collective focus that might have had a motive to act for the working class, we created an environment of maximized productivity at the cost of financial security for non-professional working people. Outside of a union, pensions and job security are hard to come by, as is a wage that might buy a house in an urban area. And private-sector unions have nowhere near the membership they used to.

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“Good,” you are probably thinking, and to some extent, I agree. In general, I like governments to do what only governments can do and nothing else. But the polarization that is ripping the U.S. apart right now has its roots in these issues, and it would be naive to assume Canada will always be immune. Then there is the backlash. Young people are skeptical of capitalism and even democracy in numbers we haven’t seen before. They certainly don’t see government debts and redistributive economic policies as a problem. Someday soon, they will be making the rules and if we don’t establish a new dynamic (or re-establish the old dynamic) between the masses and the elites, we may be looking at a set of policies that is very bad for business. Even at the level of your individual company, things work best when everyone, top to bottom, feels a sense of ownership and responsibility. We need to give workers a seat at the tables of power in our industry and in our communities.