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Avoiding the shaft: No concessions for young workers

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A couple of years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine; a department chair at a program at Ryerson.

I was telling him that my partner started teaching at Ryerson, in another faculty, and was being paid about $5000 for the course. This was to cover four months of weekly three hour classes, six hours of prep time per class, office hours, a month of exam re-scheduling (and re-re-scheduling), assignment marking and invigilation. The class wasn’t too big, just 30 students, but we had calculated that he was getting ripped off. Ryerson, of course, was getting a deal.

He was a unionized member of CUPE 3904. His work undercut the necessity of hiring new professors. If a full semester of classes (5) cost Ryerson $25,000 to offer, and an awful job market was forcing PhDs to take these exploitative positions, Ryerson had no reason to actually hire a professor who would cost a great deal more to the university at at least $75,000.

Years and years of this kind of logic and these trade-offs, aided by the government’s preference to fund scandals over higher education, has created this large underclass of workers at Ontario’s colleges and universities. The Toronto Star reported that it was partly the fault of this sector that half of GTA workers are in precarious work in a study undertaken earlier this year.

My friend told me that this reality was, in part, the fault of the professors themselves. Rather than going on strike to reject these concessions, albeit in a different union and bargaining unit, professors would take what they could, bargain their own contracts and maybe offer support where they could. And really, can you blame them? They’re under extreme, albeit different stress too. “Unless we shut down this place, they’ll keep relying on sessionals” he told me. “And you know how likely it is that we’ll shut this place down.”

I thought about this story when I saw that the Toronto Star union had negotiated a way to keep the radio room, the place where many young journalists get their start, by agreeing to a 32 per cent pay cut. The radio room is where journalists listen to the police scanner and follow the cops to then report the news. Lots of stories about crime and other Toronto-based news originate from here.

I took to Twitter to express how I didn't think this was at all a victory. I was quickly scorned by someone who saw this as good enough: the radio room has been saved, young people will have jobs and really, what other choice could there have been?

Sure, I don't know what the negotiations were like. I do know that the radio room costs $250,000 to operate, according to the J-Source article linked above, and that if all that money goes to salaries (which is unlikely, as there must be some equipment and other costs rolled into this amount), the new contract will save TorStar Corporation $80,000. To put this into perspective, here’s how the Corporation did during the first quarter of 2013:

"Total Segmented Revenue was $332.4 million in the first quarter of 2013, down $18.4 million from $350.8 million in the first quarter of 2012." This amount would also, roughly, be recovered by the sale of four, 4-page insert ads, distributed on four Saturdays over the course of a year, according to the Toronto Star's rate card.

The Star, while still making a profit, made less of a profit in the first quarter of 2013. But is this smaller profit enough to justify outsourcing the radio room? No. Just like how $80,000 isn’t going to boost the shares back up the few cents that they fell during that quarter.

Of course, it's not just the Toronto Star or the higher education sector where this is happening. CAW's 2012 agreement with the "big three" automakers for example also deepened wage segmentation between new and old workers.

The trend to level concessions on the backs of younger workers deeply troubles me. I'm currently writing a book that makes the argument that this tactic used by corporations, and unfortunately agreed to by many unions, is going to be what eventually destroys (or addressing it head on to save) the labour movement.

Younger workers have never had it so hard in post-war Canada. With record-high unemployment levels, record-high student debt, the outrageous proliferation of unpaid internships and the reliance on temporary foreign workers as a way to boost corporations’ bottom lines, young workers are in a rough spot. What’s worse, their interests are often posited against the interest of older workers in negotiations and the young ones often lose.

Older workers don't have it that easy these days either but they'll still, at least, be able to retire at 65. Who knows how long into the winters of our lives we'll be forced to work?

The effects that such cuts have on young people are obvious. What should concern older union activists, though, is the effect it will have on the labour movement in general.

If your first interaction with your union sees your wages slashed, benefits cut and your job made precarious to be able to preserve the wages and benefits of an older worker, no commitment to solidarity, in principle, is enough to convince the masses that this is a structure that works.

Older union activists need to be worried about the message that these concessions send to young people: while it's true that many young people are happy enough just to have a paying job, this sentiment is not enough to extend support to the role that unions play more generally. If the labour movement is going to survive, it needs to build its support broadly.

This is why unions must use the collective force of their workers to refuse concession contracts for young or new workers. Just like workers at CUPW, who refused to accept concession contracts for new workers and who were eventually locked out by the corporation, all unions should be prepared for the messy and difficult battles of saving all good jobs.

Corporations know that this divide-and-conquer tactic works and they'll use it every single time that they can. If the only way to resist it is to refuse to be divided, the path toward our collective victories should be pretty obvious.

Building broad support for the labour movement won't be possible if our backs are the sites on which negotiations are played.

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