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The two tier wage system and civil rights.

"There are 40 million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, 'Why are there 40 million poor people in America?' And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy."
---Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Some men of the 107th Infantry in 1863

Once upon a time in North America it was not unusual that advertisements for certain job openings ended with the words "No Irish need apply". The Irish however, are not unique, for there is a long tradition of racial discrimination that has included Aboriginals, Jews, Blacks, Chinese, Italians and Eastern Europeans to name a few.

Of course "race" is not the only excuse for creating classes of people that can be restricted in the benefits of employment that they would otherwise enjoy. Bigots and employers are much more creative than that. There is the question of sexual orientation, and of course there has long been the question of sex itself. Womankind for example has long suffered a history of restricted employment and unequal benefits for equal work.

But now of course we live in a brave new world where discrimination is a thing of the past, and all that nonsense can be swept under the rug of history. Right?

Wrong! There is seemingly no end to the desire of employers to create sub-classes of workers that are forced to compete with the mainstream workforce by working for less, thereby creating a downward pressure on wages and benefits overall.

Today in North America (Canada included) we have in many businesses and corporations a caste system whereby workers doing identical jobs under identical conditions in the same identical location are expected to do the same work with the same enthusiasm but with widely differing pay scales and benefits.

The caste system that I am talking about is commonly known as the "two tier wage system".

Unfortunately this system is all to often condoned by those who should be fighting it to the bitter end. Although generations of union members have struggled to bring the working class along the road to freedom, justice and dignity. For a few pieces of silver we betray ourselves and our fellow workers with the kiss of Judas, whenever we tolerate this system by signing and ratifying contracts that contain it!

By way of example lets take a look at a particular brewery in western Canada, MOLSON in Vancouver B.C...

Breweries have a somewhat seasonal nature to them (people drink more beer in the heat of summer than in the cold of winter). Now this may all seems too obvious to be worth pointing out. However what is not obvious is that seasonal workers should be paid less and have fewer benefits than full time workers. Nonetheless this particular brewery uses its seasonal nature to do just that.

Now this situation is not enough to satisfy the greed of this particular company so the company seeks to expand the definition of seasonal worker to include many workers who work year round. They achieve this by deciding on a particular number of employees that they claim is required to run the brewery, but they deliberately make this number way too small. Then they conveniently forget that there are always a number of employees off work for reasons like day-to-day sickness, long-term disability and workers compensation due to workplace injury, to say nothing of leaves of absence and scheduled vacation. If anyone complains that this number is too small and unrealistic, they are told that changes are expected to take place in the efficiency of the operation and plans are being made to make it even smaller, and anyway management has a divine right to mismanage. Those workers who's seniority fits them within this artificialy arrived at number enjoy full pay and the lions share of the negotiated benefits, the remainder for the most part receive much reduced wages, and benefits so menial that they border on the insulting.

And so it happens that many of these workers work year round, but are classed as seasonal or temporary and so they become permanent temps.

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The permanent temp can work as many actual straight time hours (and sometimes more) in a year than a regular employee and still be classed as a temporary employee. The permanent temp can work every week of spring, summer, fall and winter and still be classified as a seasonal employee. Of course the permanent temp is expected to be just as qualified for his position, and work just as hard as any regular employee. In exchange for this arrangement the temp enjoys much-reduced wages, and menial benefits if any at all.

The permanent temp is not discriminated against by virtue of his skin colour, race, religion or sex, for such behaviour today would be considered not only unethical but also downright illegal. Today's discrimination is seemingly more clinical, scientific and abstract; it is based on a number, "the core number" or the "Regular Employee Complement" or some other such fiction.

It is clear that the multi-tier wage and benefit system has in the hands of corporations been wielded as a weapon of divisiveness and a tool of engineered discrimination to the prejudice of the excluded. It is designed to cheat workers out of their hard earned privileges. Those who support such schemes do a disservice not only to employees but also to the good name of employers themselves.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and injustice by any other name will smell as evil. Discrimination is discrimination no matter how one wants to colour it. The greedy desire of corporations for profits at the expense of fairness to workers will always be rationalized with reasons to fool the unwary, as was 19th century black slavery, and the 20th century "final solution" of the "Jewish problem" rationalized by economics and the "science" of eugenics.

Is this then a civil rights matter? There are similarities. Here's what author Kevin Hollaway has to say in his article 'The Role of Blacks during the Civil War'...

"To many White Americans, the Civil War was about preserving the Union. For Blacks, however, it was about emancipation from Slavery. Blacks, in large numbers, volunteered to join the military; 156,000 in total. However, they were not treated equally. Initially, there was a two-tier pay scale for Blacks and Whites. Blacks also received inferior to broken down equipment. Despite their bravery on the battlefield, their contributions were and have been taken for granted."

To see Kevin's History of Civil Rights go to... [defunct link] [defunct link]

Let me make one thing quite clear. Race is not an issue at the MOLSON brewery. The minority group at this brewery is an artificial creation born of a contract that embodies systemic discrimination. However the insults and conditions that make a civil rights issue are all there: the lack of equal pay for equal work, vastly inferior benefits, arbitrary treatment, and a smoldering anger amongst the abused.

In Solidarity,
John Barker

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September 2002