Living in conservative times

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We surely seem to be living in conservative times -- with the NDP trying to distance itself from all things socialist and the public apparently unable to sate its appetite for all things royal.

Certainly it's easy to get the impression from the media that Canadians, content with their capitalist bounty, are primarily focused on the activities and outfits of the Royal Family.

So perhaps it's out-of-sync with the times to suggest that we're actually in the middle of a class war, and that it's been heating up lately.

Of course, the genius of the architects of today's conservative revolution has been to obscure the class war they've been quietly waging, keeping us distracted with foreign military ventures, royals and other celebrity sightings.

Behind all these diversions, the class war has been relentlessly proceeding. While incomes at the top have steadily climbed, incomes of ordinary Canadians have steadily eroded. The real median Canadian family income hasn't risen since the late 1970s -- even though today's typical family now has two earners, compared to just one earner 30 years ago. In other words, Canadian families are working about twice as hard to keep up to where they were a generation ago.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crunch, ordinary Canadians stand to lose even more ground. As the recent labour battles at Air Canada and Canada Post show, employers -- now with firm backing from Ottawa -- have new wind in their sails as they demand concessions and insist that new employees be hired at lower wage and benefit levels.

This means that employers are demanding the next generation of workers be paid less than today's workers. If this isn't evidence of an ongoing class war, it's hard to think what would be.

But never mind, look at how pretty our future queen is, and how warmly she relates to a crowd.

A key part of the conservative revolution has been undermining unions.

David Doorey, a labour and employment professor at York University, notes that in the past 15 years, right-of-centre provincial governments have changed legislation in ways that make it more difficult to unionize.

With unions weakened in the private sector, conservatives are turning their sights on the last bastion of union power -- the public sector, where unionization rates remain a healthy 71 per cent (compared with just 16 per cent in the private sector).

Conservative commentators like to portray public sector workers, struggling to protect their hard-won gains, as a pampered elite. (Meanwhile, the royals, among the most pampered people on the planet, are portrayed as down-to-earth whenever they flash a smile.)

Of course, it's true that unionized public sector workers often enjoy higher wages and benefits.

That's the whole point of unions -- to win a better deal for their workers.

But that shouldn't be seen as a threat to other workers. On the contrary, gains won by one group of workers establish a benchmark that can help other employees win the same.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers won paid maternity benefits in a 42-day strike in 1981, and in the process put pressure on government and other employers to provide similar benefits. Today, paid maternity benefits are enshrined in federal law; union contracts often provide additional maternity benefits.

Another key part of the conservative narrative is that the public hates unions.

While people clearly don't like labour disruptions, the surprising truth is that most Canadians actually want to belong to a union.

Doorey points to survey results showing that, while only about 30 per cent of Canadian workers are unionized, fully 52 per cent would like to be. (Ironically, this is roughly the same percentage of Canadians who support the monarchy, according to an Ipsos Reid poll taken after the royal wedding.)

Apparently Canadians want both unions and the monarchy. But they're not allowed to have both.

The conservative revolution has thwarted Canadians in their desire to unionize to protect themselves in the ongoing class war. On the positive side, it has put no limits on their freedom to fully observe the pageantry of royal life.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet and The Trouble With Billionaires. This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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