Labor Day 2010
Last week, as we drove into downtown Toronto, my wife spotted a fellow sleeping on a bench. He was covered with a green garbage bag. Luckily, the week had been unseasonably warm. The poignancy of his situation hit us with some force because, two hours earlier, we had watched a clip about a house which had recently come on the market in Edmonton, Alberta. It was a cavernous place, equipped with the latest technology, including a driveway complete with several drains and submerged electric cables. The owner would part with his property for a mere $5.25 million.
In Canada, there is something faintly ridiculous about owning a heated driveway. It conjures up images of pre-World War II France, sitting smugly behind the Maginot Line, certain that it could avoid invasion — either by the Germans or the armies of Old Man Winter. In four months time, the guy on the bench will be scrambling to find whatever protection he can.
I thought of him again when we got home and I read Bob Herbert’s column in Saturday’s New York Times. Herbert told the story of sixteen janitors who had been laid off from their jobs at a “luxury complex” owned by J.P. Morgan Chase. The janitors had been paid the princely sum of $13.50 an hour. Herbert noted wryly that each janitor’s weekly take home pay “wouldn’t cover Jamie Dimon’s [Morgan Chase's chief executive] dinner tab. Morgan Chase’s second quarter profit was $4.8 billion.
And so, on this Labour Day — in both Canada and the United States — we find ourselves facing The Great Divide. The numbers of the homeless and the unemployed are growing exponentially, while the captains of the economy — thanks to taxpayer bailouts — continue to prosper, moving from one palace to another.
In the meantime, the word “shared” — as in “shared risk,” “shared sacrifice,” “shared responsibility” and (as Robert Reich has pointed out ) “shared prosperity” — has disappeared from the public lexicon. The irony, as Reich also observes, is that the economy will never recover unless and until we rediscover a sense of shared prosperity.
Labour Day used to be about shared prosperity. Today, with only 7% of the private workforce unionized, there is little to celebrate. The fellow on the bench knows that. He is easy to ignore. But we ignore him at our peril.
Owen Gray grew up in Montreal, where he received a B. A. from Concordia University. After crossing the border and completing a Master’s degree at the University of North Carolina, he returned to Canada, married, raised a family and taught high school for 32 years. Now retired, he lives — with his wife and youngest son — on the northern shores of Lake Ontario. This is cross posted from his blog Northern Reflections.