Talking About My Generation

For some, the 58 hours that the opposition parties spent debating Bill C-6 were intended to stop Harper from forcing postal workers back to work with conditions worse than those initially proposed by their employer. For others, the debate was a manifestation of the fundamental ideological differences between the Conservatives and the NDP. For me, this debate represented the struggle of my generation for our future in the workforce.

The draconian measures the Conservatives included in Bill C-6 were about more than just punishing postal workers. I believe they were about sending a message to the leaders and workers of tomorrow that we will no longer have access to well-paid jobs with decent benefits, and that we should give up on the idea of retiring with a pension. It was a show of force, illustrating how the basic rights that our predecessors fought to acquire could be struck down by our "strong and stable" majority government. Bill C-6 made it clear that the rights of youth workers who are now entering the workforce, or have recently joined it, are under attack.

This assault on the basic rights of workers mirrors the one taking place south of the border, and it is no surprise that the corporate-friendly Conservatives would wield their newly minted majority like a cudgel over the heads of unions. However, it would be a mistake to place all the blame for the troubles of young workers at the feet of the Conservatives.

Before being elected to Parliament, I worked as a labour relations officer for AMUSE, a union representing primarily young contract workers at McGill University in Montreal. In this position, I witnessed a lack of workers' identity. It seemed as though young workers didn't think they deserved the same wages, benefits, protections or pensions that previous generations had enjoyed. The employer had successfully spread the idea that its employees were "lucky" to have jobs, regardless of their working conditions.

In an ideal world we would have long since dispensed with this 1800s thinking. In our less-than-ideal world, the idea that we young people should feel "lucky" if we find employment is back with a vengeance, as employment shifts from factories to service jobs, student debt grows, and the economic recovery has failed to create enough decent-paying jobs.

As the bulk of employment shifts from unionized factory jobs to newly created service or tech jobs, fewer unionized workplaces exist. Non-unionized jobs have become the standard for young workers entering the workplace, leaving them without representation, and needing to work twice as hard to be heard. If young workers do find jobs that are unionized, employers such as Canada Post often pit them against their older colleagues by proposing collective agreements that protect the rights of older workers, while shredding the pension and salary of new hires. In both cases
young workers are being discriminated against.

At the same time, tuition fees continue to soar and students are being pressured by their debt load to accept whatever job they can get to stop interest on their debts from accumulating. This urgency to pay off student debt allows employers to sell youth on the idea that they should be thankful for whatever job they can get.

Many students make a calculated decision to take on student debt with the promise of good wages in the future. The dialogue used to be: go to college or university, go into debt, but don't worry because the well-paid job you get will make up for it. Now the dialogue has shifted to: if you want to study you have to go into debt, and there might be a decent-paying job when you get out.

Recent graduates between 18 and 25 stepped into the workforce at the worst possible time: in the middle of an economic crisis in which jobs were scarce. While the government claims that our economy is on the road to recovery and that their Economic Action Plan has created enough jobs to ensure economic prosperity, the youth unemployment rate is alarming, hovering around 7.4 per

During the 58-hour debate, we sought to stand up, not only for the postal workers, but also for young workers entering a workplace shaped by Harper's cruel vision of Canada, and by the precedents established by Bill C-6. In Harper's Canada, my generation may not have the opportunity to break out of this lucky-to-have-a-job mentality and to negotiate collectively, a right the Harper government clearly does not respect. This Canada will not give decent wages to
the leaders of tomorrow. It will not provide sufficient pensions to allow the average Canadian to retire in dignity, and it certainly won't provide workers with decent benefits. We have watched as state after state in the U.S. has suffered unprecedented assaults on the right to bargain collectively. We have also seen the solidarity and resolve demonstrated by workers across the continent who poured into Wisconsin to defend their fellow workers and fight for the most basic of workers' rights. With Bill C-6, Harper has served notice that he intends to follow the lead of those such as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who would strip workers of their most fundamental protections. The reality is clear: either we stand together and reject the Harper agenda, or we risk going the way of Wisconsin.

The young workers of my generation are in need of labour solidarity because we are losing the rights that older generations fought for and recent generations have taken for granted. It is up to all workers to stand up and fight this blatant attack on the future of workers' rights. We cannot allow older workers to be pitted against their younger colleagues. To me, this is what the 58-hour-long debate symbolized.

With Bill C-6, the Conservatives took advantage of the reality that youth face today, and sought to establish a precedent for the workers of tomorrow. They took advantage of the fact that too many believe that we are lucky to have jobs. It is as though they are saying to themselves: "If we take workers' rights away from those who aren't used to having them, maybe they won't notice."

Well, we did notice, and we won't accept it. My generation, for the first time, has many young MPs in Parliament to give voice to our concerns. We must not allow the government, or employers, to divide workers in the way Canada Post attempted to do with their wage differentiation.

Unions also have the challenge of adapting to this new worker reality where part-time, contract work and service jobs are becoming the norm. Young workers need unions to stand up for them, fight for the rights of all workers, and allow young workers to break away from the "lucky to
have a job" mentality.

The NDP debated Bill C-6 during the 58-hour filibuster because we don't support the Canada that Harper is trying to create, in which young workers do not have the right to proper wages, decent benefits, and pensions. I hope that Canadian workers, young and old, will see Bill C-6 as an attack on their rights and come together to fight for a better future.

Charmaine Borg, born in 1990, is the NDP Member of Parliament for Terrebonne-Blainville.