Today is the International Day of the Worker, but I’ll spare you the usual labour folderol.
Most of us are too busy holding down two or three non-union jobs in Alberta’s new, improved, globalized economy to spend much time pondering what the labour movement could do for us. What’s more, we’re avoiding crowds to keep from being infected with the swine flu – our very own “Aporkalypse Now” nightmare.
For both these reasons, North American May Day parades today are certain to be sparsely attended. Most of us will stay at home tonight, and maybe watch a video of Norma Rae or F.I.S.T. – if it still plays after we’ve smeared it with Purell disinfectant sanitizer (“kills 99% of germs”).
Just remember this as you lay your head on the pillow, inventorying your influenza symptoms: Swine flu is a labour issue!
Don’t feel too comforted that our Conservative federal and provincial governments say they are briskly taking measures to stop the spread of this disease.
As noted recently in this space, as far as the government of Canada is concerned, the needs of businesses take precedence over the health and safety of Canadians. They’re happy to shut down flights to Mexican resorts and advise us all to wash our hands with regularity. However, they’re not about to slow the airborne flow of low-wage Mexican guest workers north to protect the wealthy owners of Canadian corporate farm-factories from the threat of unionism.
Lacking even the prospect of a reinvigorated Liberal Party, our wretched provincial government will do anything it can to sabotage effective labour laws that would make it easy for Alberta workers to take time off when they are ill, protecting themselves and their co-workers.
Our governments may not have noticed, but viruses are pretty small, well equipped to slip past even Customs officers vigilant enough to spot the naughty ideas inside George Galloway’s head. Simple measures like allowing farm workers to join unions and passing labour laws that would protect working people who are sick and need to stay home would do more to slow the spread of swine flu than shutting down all the world’s tourist flights to Mexico.
If you think this is just labour hyperbole, consider the Toronto Star’s report this morning that the swine flu might better be called the “NAFTA Flu.”
The viral mutation that started this whole panic seems to have originated next to a filthy U.S.-owned corporate pig farm in Mexico made possible by the lax environmental regulations, lousy labour laws and lack of enforceable community planning regulations encouraged by the North American Free Trade Agreement and similar corporate bills of rights.
Then again, if you’re skeptical about that one, maybe Swine Flu Ground Zero was in the United States. That’s the Wall Street Journal’s theory. Same trade deal; different swine.
When we sign these deals we are not just attacking the rights of working people abroad and weakening the ability of governments at home to democratically control the worst excesses of corporations. We are creating breeding grounds for pandemics – things that can hurt us and our families in direct and measurable ways.
Similarly, when we privatize the jobs of people who work in hospitals, we not only reduce their wages and degrade their working conditions, we make the spread of deadly epidemics more likely. Ironically, we seldom save money through these measures – we merely transfer our tax dollars into the pockets of wealthy contractors.
So, back in 2003, the head of Taiwan’s Centre for Disease Control stated that contracting out of hospital cleaning, laundry and nursing aide services contributed to that country’s deadly outbreak of SARS because contract employees’ work could not be effectively monitored or controlled by hospital managers.
Su Ih-jen warned that outsourcing the work of nursing attendants and housekeeping staff stripped health facilities of the ability to control the movements of workers who could spread the disease. He described a SARS outbreak in a large municipal hospital in Taipei where physicians and nurses employed by the hospital were not infected, but contract employees who were not given proper disease-prevention attire “roamed freely in hospitals and contracted the disease.”
Then there’s the matter of the global “pandemic” of workplace deaths and injuries – more than 1.3 million deaths a year world wide, 12,000 of them children. Nothing can inoculate us more effectively against that tragic toll than access to union membership.
Fair labour laws at home and abroad protect us all – and not just on the job.
In the bluntest possible terms, that is why swine flu is a labour issue.