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Labor rallies to challenge brave new Wal-Mart world

by Mike Boone Thursday, Dec. 11, 2003 at 12:40 PM

If Americans can get a DVD player for - as they could this week during a pre-Christmas promotion at Wal-Mart - they are not going to be unduly concerned about whether workers who assembled the gizmo have a dental plan.

Labouring over brave new Wal-Mart world

Mike Boone, The Gazette, December 10, 2003

Quebec labour will flex its muscles tomorrow: a million union members participating in various ways of demonstrating their dissatisfaction with what they perceive as the provincial government's tilt to the right.

They'll march. They'll chant.

Day care will be disrupted. Traffic will be a mess. And depending on the vantage point on the political spectrum from which you're viewing the action, the multi-manifs can be seen as either:

a) The death rattle of syndicalism, a movement whose time came and went during the last century.

b) A defiant stand against the scourge of this century: job-exporting, environment-wrecking, soul-destroying global capitalism.

c) Colourful street theatre; but I don't work for the government, so I've got no dog in this fight.

d) Why are these hosers blocking the street? Don't they realize I have to get to the mall to buy Christmas presents that are affordable because they're made on the other side of the world by people earning 40 cents an hour in countries where the only labour law is Bill 1: Strikers will be shot.

I remain deeply in touch with my inner Michel Chartrand, buried as he is under several layers of imported clothing. And I share unionized workers' suspicions that proposed Quebec Labour Code changes that would facilitate subcontracting are the thin end of the wedge.

Will we all end up feeling their pain? If the Jean Charest government succeeds in turning North America's last lonely bastion of social democracy into another branch of Wal-Mart, the first steps of "re-engineering" will come to be seen as the thin end of a mass wedgie.

The name of an 11th-century English king came up in conversation with Karl Moore yesterday. To prove the limitations of his power to sycophantic couriers, Canute sat on a throne at the shore and ordered the waves to recede.

The sea did not obey royal authority. And the relentlessly pounding waves of free-market capitalism may prove similarly indifferent to the concerns of Quebec organized labour.

A member of the faculty of management at McGill University, Moore has written extensively on globalization. He's preparing a course for next semester that will feature guest speakers, including New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton.

I phoned Moore because I wanted to put Quebec's labour skirmish in a larger context. He cites CGI, with its logo slapped on the new E-Commerce Place on Rene Levesque Blvd., as a company that benefits from American outsourcing of information technology. But most of our manufacturing jobs have been outsourced from Canada to other parts of the world.

Moore lists CN, Bombardier, Alcan and Cirque du Soleil as companies that have prospered in a global economy.

Are we net winners?

"Who do you mean by 'we'?" Moore replied.

He referred me to a story in Sunday's New York Times headlined "Is Wal-Mart Good for America?"

The Times quoted Robert Reich, professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University and former secretary of labour in the Bill Clinton administration. Reich is not some throw-another-pauper-on-the-fire libertarian loony from the Cato Institute.

"Wal-Mart is the logical end point and the future of the economy," Reich said, "in a society whose pre-eminent value is getting the best deal."

Moore says globalization benefits consumers: more variety, higher quality, better prices. But sectors of the economy, notably manufacturing, have lost jobs and some workers who have found new jobs are earning less.

Moore thinks governments are, like King Canute, largely powerless to stem the tide of globalization. Their role, he said, is determining how best to adjust to something that can't be stopped.

If Americans can get a DVD player for - as they could this week during a pre-Christmas promotion at Wal-Mart - they are not going to be unduly concerned about whether workers who assembled the gizmo have a dental plan.

Is Quebec different? The motto on our licence plates is not So-so-so-solidarite, but nor is it IGMFY (I've got mine - !@#$ you).
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