Blackening the “green-collar” label

Here’s a bizarre story from the Toronto Star, on a union-led effort to get Ontario’s economy retooled for green industries. What’s weird about it is the apparently straight-faced conflation of environmental-friendliness with unionization and government-mandated wage standards.

If it were just reported as a standard organized-labour-wants-better-working-conditions story, it would make sense. But instead it’s headlined as if it were a story about green industry, and instead it’s on and on and on about minimum wages and regulating the marginal-work sections of the economy:

Statistics show parents are working and jobs are available, says the report, noting that Ontario’s unemployment rate was just 6.1 per cent in February. The problem is that stable, well-paying manufacturing jobs that helped build the province’s middle class over the past 30 years are disappearing and being replaced by low-wage service sector, temporary and contract work.

Of Ontario’s 345,000 poor kids, 41 per cent had a parent who was working full-time all year, the report says.

The report uses Statistics Canada’s pre-tax, low-income cut-off as a measure of the minimum salary of a good job. For a family of four in a large city like Toronto a “good-job” salary was $40,259 in 2007. For that same family in a smaller community, it was $34,671.

The average worker who loses a manufacturing job in Ontario experiences a 25 per cent cut in income when he or she finds new work, the report says. For Toronto parent Phuong Le, 48, who lost her $44,000-a-year job assembling light switches in 2005, the drop was even more dramatic. Today she works part time at a big box retailer earning just $14,000 annually.

“I would like to work more hours but all they will give me is part time,” says Le, who didn’t want her real name used for fear of retribution from her employer.

For Le and her husband, both immigrants who have lived and worked in Toronto for 28 and 35 years, respectively, factory work allowed them to raise their son and daughter in a stable middle-class home. But today, as work dwindles at the auto-parts plant where her 51-year-old husband works, Le fears for the future.

“If my husband gets laid off, I don’t know what we’ll do,” she says. “We are too old to retrain and too young to retire. Nobody wants us.”

I mean, yes, it’s a serious problem for Ontario that a combination of the high (oil-driven) Canadian dollar and competition from India and Asia are battering the long-established manufacturing sector. But this is just restating the problem again and again and again.

The truth is, the headline torques the actual report an awful lot for play on the Star‘s front page. The report’s about the lousy state of the manufacturing economy: promoting green industry is only a small part of it.

Predictably and unfortunately, by the time we get to the actual recommendations, it’s the same old stuff: spend public dollars on domestic procurement, subsidize, regulate, etc.

Here’s a principle: if your nominally private-sector job depends on a straight cash public-sector handout and shows no signs of stopping, it’s not a good job.

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