Snowclearing, greed and precarious labour

The revolving-door policy toward workers in this province must stop

As the island prepares for the first blizzard of spring, residents of St. John’s are expecting it to be a bigger headache than usual. Reports the City has laid off dozens of snowclearing staff have residents worried about how an already inadequate approach to snowclearing is going to pan out when it’s rendered even more inadequate than it already is.

Meanwhile, the City of Mount Pearl, in the zing of the year, has calmly reassured its residents that “a full complement” of snowclearing staff will be on hand to deal with the excitement.

Well played, Mount Pearl. Well played.

The capital city’s perpetually stunned approach to snowclearing is frustrating enough (heated sidewalks, anyone? I’m serious – European countries use them), but it’s also indicative of a broader and more problematic approach to the intertwined issues of providing public services and providing decent work.

Not just snowclearing

A couple of years ago I wrote about a wildcat strike that took place at Long Harbour by workers in the professional trades who were sick and tired of being promised work, only to be laid off after a couple weeks when demand died down. They weren’t the only ones; there’s been labour unrest aplenty at the large industrial sites. The approach of the province’s construction and trades employers is consistently one that expects workers to be available when they’re needed, but then to toddle off and somehow make do on their own when they’re not. It’s a culture of labour-on-demand, of hiring halls and day labourers, where employers expect to be able to find workers when they need them, but then also to be able to cut corners and costs by giving them the boot whenever they want.

This sort of approach to labour and employment doesn’t benefit anybody in this province except the companies (and their rich bosses, most of whom don’t even live here). And despite their claims, this approach certainly does nothing to strengthen or grow the economy. One of the reasons for the infamous ‘labour shortage’ is that local workers are simply fed up with the arrogant and self-centred attitude of employers in this province and are more inclined to fly off to other provinces where at least they can be assured of consistent, regular work.

It’s also one of the reasons why inequality is growing at a disturbing rate in this province. Those stalwarts who decide to stay here are barely able to make ends meet, struggling from job to job unable to pay mortgages (or the dramatically rising costs of rental housing), raise families, pursue additional skills and training or even put food on the table (the growth in food bank usage exposes the lie that things are getting better for the average person in this province).

What is to be done?

We need to move away from this backward and immature approach to employment and the labour market. It’s a haphazard approach that’s grounded in all the antiquated ideas of Victorian-era capitalism, and we all know where that got them (read some Dickens if you don’t).

The solution is that government needs to play a much bigger role in ensuring we move away from this attitude of ‘labour-on-demand’ (which is equally rooted in our pre-Confederation, merchant-takes-all mentality, and the insecurities and exploitations which that led to), and that we cultivate a labour market grounded in the principle of full-time, permanent, decent work. Government can do this by strengthening regulatory mechanisms like the Labour Relations Act to strengthen the ability of unions to resist efforts by employers to pursue profit-making measures that line the pockets of the corporate bosses while undermining the provincial economy, local communities and local workers.

Government needs to play a much bigger role in ensuring we move away from this attitude of ‘labour-on-demand’…

But that’s why it’s so troubling that a municipal government – the City of St. John’s – is not taking the lead. Any time an employer has to lay workers off, it ought to be with a sense of shame. Layoffs are an indication of a bad employer: an employer who’s failed at the job of being an employer. Sure, we don’t need snowclearing year round (although some years you’d wonder). But jumping the gun and laying off snowclearing staff in late March makes just about as much sense as NL Hydro’s asinine gamble that we wouldn’t have bad weather in January and could make due with a compromised and inadequate energy grid.

People operating public services must stop taking gambles in the name of saving money. When cutting costs means cutting corners, it’s not acceptable.

Beyond that, if the city – and other employers – acknowledged their responsibility not just to provide the most basic level of service, but to offer secure, decent and meaningful employment to our province’s workers, then we wouldn’t have ridiculous situations like this in the first place. Snowclearing staff could be given other duties in the summertime; additional skills and training would make them even more valuable employees (they could do maintenance on the heated sidewalks, for instance). Professional trades workers on the mega projects could be given additional training and skills upgrades – which at present they have to pursue on their own time and dollar, for the most part – when demand on worksites drops down.

If employers stopped trying to cut corners at every possible juncture, we could actually build a provincial workforce that was the best trained, best skilled and most proud of what they do in the entire country.

Instead, we wind up with a collective resentment at the people in charge who appear to have few qualifications beyond a profound ability to make dumb decisions. A situation which benefits none of us, in the end.

As we watch the snow bomb unfold this week, let’s give some thought to what we can do to turn around our province’s culture of precarious labour-on-demand, and to bring about a government and workplace culture that is grounded in the principle of decent, full-time, permanent, meaningful work. It was not too long ago that this used to be the driving principle of the labour market. With a bit of effort, it can be once more.

We’ve got an election coming up pretty soon. That might be a good place to start.


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