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bigot cartoon

Democracy, Discrimination and Bigotry

"You'll never be able to do anything about the two-tier wage system! It's happening everywhere. Its here, its back east, and its not just at MOLSON, it's the same at Labatt's; in fact it's all over the world. How can you expect to do anything about that? You're flogging a dead horse John."

From time to time I hear these skeptical words that seem designed to do nothing but discourage. But a few moments of reflection puts things back into perspective. I don't work at Labatt's, I don't work back east and I certainly don't work all over the world. I do work right here at the MOLSON brewery in Vancouver B.C. And I can do something about that. I can agitate right here on the job, I can act locally and think globally. And if I'm foolish enough to think that I can make any difference here, then there is probably someone at Labatt's and another individual back east, foolish enough to think they can change their world there. And if they haven't yet given the problem any thought, then by thinking globally I can also act globally by networking through these web pages to bring the problem to their attention and to the attention of others.

But what is the problem? After all, two-tier contracts are negotiated by union committees and ratified by union members. That's democracy isn't it? So what's wrong with that?

Well I suppose it could be argued that the Ku Klux Klan acts democratically when they vote for racist actions at their secret gatherings. But democracy means rule by the people, and who is being ruled? The people of course! So democracy is a system where people make decisions on the issues that affect themselves.

And it follows that if a majority of union members vote for something that doesn't affect them, but only affects new hires, or a minority of junior employees. Then that isn't democracy, any more than if all the good white folk voted to place the black minority into slavery. It would not be democracy; it would be tyranny, the tyranny of the majority.

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Now the problem is not really about the two-tier system, it is really about discrimination, that is to say, the differential treatment of people based on reasons other than merit. And when we look at that ultimate form of discrimination, slavery, it becomes clear that discrimination is not really about bigotry, but rather it is about economics, it's about maximizing profit at the workers expense. Bigotry is a secondary effect that results from the rationalization that makes us comfortable about exploiting the suffering of others. Bigotry is about the pseudo-scientific ideas that the slaves are somewhere else on the evolutionary scale that they don't have feelings like us good white folk and they probably don't even have souls. The function of bigotry is to enable discrimination, it being much easier to mistreat those that we think, are not quite as good as ourselves, those that nature has (in our misguided opinion) made less deserving.

And the same can be said about almost all forms of discrimination, that they are primarily economic in motive, and that bigotry is merely the result of the rationalization that attempts to makes discrimination palatable.

For example wage discrimination against females, creates a pool of cheap labour that is competitive and thus tends to drive down all wages. The rationalization is that man is the head of the household and needs to earn more, and the women are just happy to make pin money. But the reality is that the man (who is perceived to require more) finishes up earning less through the forces of competition.

Chinese "coolies" building the Canadian railway on racially based wages is another example. The rationalization is that they are just "chinks" and "foreigners", but the fact is that the rail owners used them as a cheap source of labour that had the added advantage of tending to drive all wages down, so the reason for the pay differential was in fact economic.

Now of course laws have been put in place to protect those who have traditionally been the victims of discrimination. And as good and righteous as those laws may be, they do not alter the fact that shareholders (who's only motive is the maximization of profit) can still profit from the benefits (from their point of view) of the economic effects of discrimination.

And of course surviving alongside with discrimination are the words of rationalization that makes it all appear "OK", word like "seasonal", "temporary" and "non-benefit employees", together with scientific sounding terms like "core number" and "employee complement number" but in reality its just the same old box of dirty rags designed to enrich the greedy propertied class at the expense of the worker.

In Solidarity,
John Barker

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December 2003