What's Left 2016-06-05 Volume 60

The case against unions using the word 'Millennial'; 'Gig Economy' too broad to be meaningful; Oil pipeline promises are a pipe dream; Brazil coup unravelling

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The case against unions using the word “Millennial”

It’s normal for marketing agencies to invent words to capture the essence of an entire generation of potential consumers. It’s done regularly. Boomers, Gen Y, Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z, they are words meant to generalize the habits of a particularly large segment of the population. Unfortunately, in a world where media is dominated by those who do not identify with younger generations, these identifiers are used to communicate all sorts of stereotypes.

When these words are used in progressive circles – labour unions, activist groups, student spheres – it becomes an easy point of division. While self-identification is important and helps build a diverse and inclusive movement, “Millennial” is a loaded term. In addition to its taint from marketing, “Millennial” it is often used as a pejorative and creates arbitrary barriers to building broader working class solidarity.

There are important reasons to examine the effects of age on an individual’s needs in a social and economic context. However, it is important to appreciate that age is a continuum and not everyone is impacted the same way at the same age.

The “Millennial” label, like all of these generational labels, lumps everyone together in an arbitrary category, as if being born a year before or after a predetermined year gives one special super powers of reason or innate ability to use technology. Indeed, no one can even agree about which birth year should mark the beginnings of the Millennial generation.

Despite the difference in age, problems facing anyone that fall outside of the Millennial generation are also replicated among youth. The systems of oppression that affect working people, radicalized people, and women in particular, have not yet been eradicated and are clearly also present among the younger generation.

Numerous studies looking at stereotypes of “young people today” show that most of the issues that faced previous generations continue to impact newer generations. This is of no surprise since neoliberal reforms have weakened social supports for generations. And while it is easy to lump people in groups, the reality is we engage with society and the economy at the individual level, not as generations. As such, an individual’s economic and social relationships have not just changed drastically for those born after 1981 compared to those born in 1975.

In progressive organizations, it is more useful to identify people according to their relation to their work. Those new to a job, those in precarious or contract work, those near retirement. This kind of orientation can be related to age, of course. And, those entering (or re-entering) the workforce may be older or younger than the median, but it is their relation to their employment, their economy, and their social group that gives insight into their issues.

There will always be reasons why consumer and communications firms refer to various age groups and attempt broadly generalize their likes, dislikes, habits, buying preferences, or voting characteristics. However, to build a lasting working class movement we must engage with individual workers without preconceptions. The trick is to avoid terms like “Millennial” – terms that divide without providing any meaningful information that might advance the movement.

“Gig Economy” too broad to be meaningful

There seems to be a wilful blindness on behalf of neoliberal policy makers and the media when it comes to complexities of precarious work (the “gig economy”). These politicians are using new technological changes that consumers want as cover to push through anti-worker and “market above all” types of deregulation. The result is more workers are being exploited in precarious jobs. However, there is are essential differences between Uber, Airbnb, and the new internet application-based food delivery services. These differences are important when it comes to the type of regulation that will protect these workers.

Uber, as a company, uses private equity funding to aggressively attack regulation to forward its own profit making. They win when their employees undercut workers currently in the regulated system. This is a direct undermining of a system full of hard-won regulation brought in to stop the exact kind of unsustainable race to the bottom Uber is pushing.

Airbnb is not, as a company, aggressively attacking regulatory mechanisms to undermine a highly regulated house-sharing market. Those who use Airbnb are not employees and are not directly undermining a regulated class of worker. While there are those who are operating in a way that is unlawful, that was the case before Airbnb. The main concern for hotel workers is that there are some large-scale property owners acting as hotels and undercutting wages for cleaners by using contracted companies. The answer is hotel-style regulation and enforcement of municipal hotel licensing for larger operators.

The main issues with Airbnb are compliance with current regulations on grey-market income, standards, and liability insurance. For a solution, we can look to Cuba which has had an Airbnb-style rent-an-extra-room system since the start of its revolution. It solved the exploitative aspects of their Casa Particulares system through effective regulation and enforcement.

Airbnb will not likely replace high and medium-end, unionized hotels. However, it might drive competition at the low-end, non-union low regulatory compliance hotels. This level of competition will not be new for most small operators.

The final example is the contract food delivery, which has always existed as hyper exploitative employment. If anything, the centralization (through an internet company) of the distribution of these contracts may make it easier to identify the specific nature of the exploitation. This would make either organizing the workers or demands sector standards easier. Bike messengers in Toronto and other cities have been experimenting with ways to build solidarity and increase standards in their sector for years.

Making the distinctions between these types of companies are important for organizing, demanding progressive change, and writing regulations that will actually help instead of hinder access to stable employment. Identifying who the workers are, how they are being exploited, and by whom is also essential for tilting the scales back in favour of workers.



Oil pipeline promises are a pipe dream

A new report from the Parkland Institute has shown that the promises of meeting the Paris Agreement goals for greenhouse emissions are essentially impossible if new oil export production is brought online. Under the current self-imposed Alberta emissions cap, Parkland shows that there is no need to build a pipeline as there is more than enough current rail and pipeline capacity to meet any new need.

New pipelines are not needed under Alberta’s cap on oil sands emissions.



Brazil coup unravelling

The slow-motion coup in Brazil is unravelling just as it achieved right-wing control. This week saw the new president – who is replacing Dilma Rousseff as she fights a trumped-up impeachment process – banned from running for office for eight years after he was convicted of corruption.

Meanwhile, Rouseff’s defence lawyers have submitted 370 pages of documents that expose weakness of the charges against her. The defence is attempting to show that dozens of opposition politicians recently charged with corruption have pushed a campaign of presidential impeachment as a way to divert attention and avoid prosecution.

Canadian unions and social movements have signed onto a letter condemning the coup process as illegal. They are calling on the government of Canada to not recognize the current illegitimate government in Brazil.

Canadian organizations condemn Parliamentary coup in Brazil

Brazil: Rousseff impeachment bid ‘aims to conceal corruption’