“They’re gonna take us right back to the hungry thirties “ a rather pessimistic old timer said to me just recently.
My wife said; “ you’re spending too much time talking to old people “. As if I have a choice; it’s either that or buy one of them blackberries.
But seriously; the most significant thing I remember, as a six year old in the late thirties, is the nervousness and almost palpable fear I sensed in my mother when dad, a stonemason, was due to come home from work on Saturdays. But only on Saturdays.
We didn’t have long weekends yet in those days.
It was years later before I learned that the reason for her anxiety was the possibility of a lay-off notice in dad’s pay-packet. (No unemployment insurance either)
And we almost made it from paycheck to paycheck, but not often, according to my mother.
Now, I personally am not pessimistic enough to suggest that we will ever go back to the conditions prevailing in those days and I must admit that ‘Occupy’ has helped my thinking a bit in that regard.
There can be no question that the last four or five decades have seen vast improvements in the standard of living. Thanks to the hard work and enormous sacrifices of union members in the past – and some major concessions granted working people because of a threatening alternative political system that was rapidly gaining ground in many European countries – we started “having it good.”
It didn’t all come easy; many in the non-union sector criticized the unions and its actions, as if oblivious to the fact that they too benefited from the increase in the living standard, often exponentially so. I thought this was most graphically illustrated by one of Canada’s largest banks when they decided to preserve the facade of their modest two or three story edifice of the fifties and incorporate it in the facade of their new quarters – one of the highest skyscrapers on the Toronto skyline.
But “having it good” meant feeling comfortable, maybe too comfortable.
Many saw no need to leave adolescence behind. We rose – en masse – to the bait of easy credit and the average home of 1500 square feet in the fifties and sixties became the mansion of twice that size.
The phrase ‘ I deserve it ‘ became like a refrain, all while blissfully unaware that the real world doesn’t give a hoot about what we deserve. We even had the precious luxury of being able to tell one another that ‘ we live in a free country ‘, a phrase that has started to ring rather hollow since
Bill 22 and the extensive use by both federal and provincial governments of the ‘whip’ of back-to-work legislation.
The apparent ease by which our governments took away the right – the freedom – of public sector unions to negotiate legal contracts is highly disturbing and raises questions about the future of private sector unions.
It has now become obvious that Solidarity – in the sense of unionism – has lost much of its meaning and above all, its potency. Not only because of a declining membership – many jobs having disappeared to China, Mexico and who knows where – but also because many of the present members can no longer afford to vote for strike action for fear of repossession when without paycheck for any length of time.
Hunger and deprivation leave long memories and it is good that younger generations were spared these. But only having known the good times comes with a certain vulnerability I think, and we can only hope for enough awareness to know that freedom and prosperity walk hand in hand.
That once freedom is taken away from us, prosperity is bound to follow.
While it is certainly gratifying to see the obvious signs of prosperity for working people today, it would be foolish to ignore the many clear signs that all is not well in the land of plenty: The many young adults that can’t afford to leave the nest, the even greater number of kids having to go to school in trailers, the lack of affordable long-term-care facilities, the sky-rocketing cost of higher education and the increasing number of food banks are just a few of them.
A bit of soul searching on our part might not be amiss, especially when election time rolls around again.
Peter van Iersel