Sunday, 20 November 2011

It calls to mind a scene from an old black and white movie: the incensed villagers converge on the castle of the rapacious lord with pitchforks and pruning hooks and torches.

A week ago, workers at the Bowater Mersey plant in southern Nova Scotia were faced with an incredible choice. In order to preserve the jobs of some, roughly 80 unionized jobs - close to half - would need to be cut from the work force. So said the employer: the alternative was to shut the mill. This is not just about the employees of course. It is about their families and indeed the economy of an entire county that has received several economic body blows in recent months. The vote was close and interviews with the workers revealed just how torn they were. This group of people has given and given and given in response to the company's demands over the years, rolling back one aspect of their contract after another.

Then came the word, not a week later, that two of company's senior employees shared almost $4million in bonuses and severance awards for making the plant more profitable! The new CEO will earn $765,000 plus performance bonuses of up to 100%. The new CFO earns $350,000 and is eligible for 100% more in short-term incentive bonuses and 125% in long-term incentive bonuses. Incidentally, the first two bonuses amount to more than the tax breaks given by the local municipality over the last ten years to encourage the company to maintain the plant and the jobs. And the company continues to plead its "need" for public assistance in taxes, power rates and the like.

Now, I don't know anything about the forestry industry. What I read in the paper indicates that it is an economic sector under tremendous pressure, particularly as the global market for newsprint continues to decline. But this isn't about cutting trees and milling wood and selling paper. This is about the just treatment of people who earn their living by the sweat of their brow and the communities that depend upon them. This about the incredible disconnect in our economy between those who actually do the work and those who pocket the lion's share of the reward. It is about the insistence that profits and executive pay must not be impacted by the financial challenges of a corporation.

I don't know anything about those Abitibi employees. They may indeed be fine , upstanding individuals, who are active in their communities and give to charity. But the system they are part of stinks! It reeks of an appalling injustice which sees the average CEO of a company in Canada make 155 times that of the worker in the company. By noon on January 3rd, the top100 CEOs in Canada will have garnered what the average employee will earn in in 2012. Henry Ford, crafty old industrialst that he was, recognized that at the level he was paying his employees they could never afford the cars running off his assembly lines. So he raised their wages. That attitude (called Fordism) and a strong trade union movement kept the disparity between the richest and the poorest in Canada in check for several decades. However, since the 1970s, income for working Canadians has been stagnant or declining, while profits for corporations and pay packages for executives have gone through the roof and continued into the atmosphere. I don't mind someone who invents a revolutionary new device or develops a genuine society-changing process gaining the rewards of their labours. But many of the highest paid are employed by companies that actually produce nothing, merely shuffling paper from one place to another. And now, recent research in Canada suggests that 10% of us would have difficulty, even with credit cards and lines of credit, meeting an unexpected $500 expense. And 59% of us would be in very serious problems if a pay cheque were delayed by one week.

Speaking of giving to charity: I applaud mega billionaires like Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett who challenge their peers to give away huge sums of money. Good for them!! But there is something radically amiss when justice is dependent on private philanthropy and the addressing of social ills relies on charity. That is a grotesque distortion of the values of our society which cherishes the obscene profits of the few over the well-being of the many.

I'm sure that some of the good people of Lunenberg and Queen's Counties would love to get out the pitchforks and torches! But, in a system where there is such disparity in values and lack of commitment to the community that has worked for the mill for generations, the risk is that the company would simply pack up and leave entirely. Imagine though, having to serve those executives in the local stores.

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