Junk Food Economy

A. Paul Gill

In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the economy was strong enough to employ many young men and women without post–secondary training. They had no trouble finding good paying jobs right out of high school.

Since that time, real wages and the standard of living among young adults have been declining steadily. As a new generation of workers trudges out of the depleted school system trying to create a life for themselves, they’re finding it difficult to make ends meet, let alone get ahead.

The current economic situation in not only hurting young workers directly, it is also hampering the union movement’s representation of youth. In Canada, one of the tactics Safeway has used to compete with the Canadian Superstore chain was to demand concessions from its union. A new employee receives about half the wage of a veteran, resulting in bad feelings towards the union by new employees.

In the end, the company gains two advantages: A new workforce that it has to pay only half as much and a new workforce that is anti–union. Superstore itself employs many young people through a “company union” at approximately $8. (per hour) part–time to undercut Safeway. In the end it is the workers who lose.

More and more, young workers are being victimized by a society that is beginning to thrive on junk food, cheap entertainment and cheap labour. This society is not only filling the planet with garbage, it is filling their minds and bodies with garbage.

This new economic phenomenon, created by a society in the fast lane, has been aptly named the Junk Food Economy. Youth, women and immigrants are the fuel that drives this abomination stretching from farm workers to secretaries. Worst of all, this type of exploitation is growing.

Most of these young workers are not finding careers in the Junk Food Economy, nor do they want them. The materialistic trends of the 1980’s have encouraged youth to take jobs at a younger age to earn enough money to keep up with life in the fast lane.

They are being trained to accept that they are worthless to society. That is why McDonalds is able to acquire an incredible amount of youth labour for relatively little cost. After moving out to attend university or earn a living, this generation is finding it very difficult to achieve the standard of living of their parents because there are few good jobs waiting for them.

At this point in their lives young people begin to question the system because for the first time in their lives it looks as if it won’t fulfill their dreams. They are open to new ideas based on collectivism after finding the Me Decade has done nothing but exploit youth.

The union movement has the ability to combine the social need to be a part of society with the economic need to earn a living.

The urban environment may take away the community aspects of society, but unions can revive those aspects.

However, the union movement is currently too busy representing union members to attempt to organize youth that have not yet understood why they need unions. Youth are willing to undersell their labour just to get a foothold in the workforce.

The collective awareness of their position in the world must start forming in their consciousness as they attempt to hurdle all the brick walls between high school and a good standard of living before unions can help these young people.

Unions are based on two fundamental pillars: Empowerment of individuals as part of a collective and democratic decision–making. Unions were created to protect individual worker’s rights.

The Charter of Rights is only half of what is important (to) people. The right to work for a decent living wage, the right to have a safe workplace and the right to discuss issues in a collective bargaining process are just as important.

These rights are the backbone of our economy. A healthy economy means an economy that has respect for its working people. Investing in the workforce will stimulate the economy because each worker earning a good wage will be able to afford the products which will, in turn create more jobs.

Unions need to focus on organizing and training youth to help unionize the Junk Food Economy. Young people will discover that there are not enough well–paying jobs for everyone.

They will have to stop underselling their labour. Only then will they escape the sweat shop, by escaping the sweat shop mentality. This is the beginning of a union. The system uses dreams of grandeur to avert youth from real, current issues such as working conditions and pay. They hope to succeed one day and leave the hamburger stand behind.

Unfortunately, the fear of authority figures hinders this generation. Starting work at an early age and having to take orders from an older manager can rob a young person of their self–respect.

That leaves them to accept the “manager’s opinion” of how they perform their duties. Once that is established, youth are pushed to their limit because profits are reaped from their extra effort. Therefore, the more they work, the more profits their employers gain and the greater their exploitation.

The labour movement can build self–esteem because unionists understand that hard work is the same no matter where the worker is employed. Youth in this country need to look at the world from the worker’s point of view. Everyone contributes to our society and this work is beneficial to the economy.

A society with a highly–organized work force is always a successful society. Sweden has always been a good example of a good worker’s society: 1.1 percent unemployment, a self–sufficient economy and the world’s highest standard of living. Even the McDonalds in Sweden are unionized.

In North America, unions have played a large part in creating the relatively good work atmosphere we enjoy today. Our wages, whether they are minimum wage or union salary, were fought for and won by the union movement on the picket lines of the 1930’s and that fight is still alive at the bargaining tables today.

Our standard of living is not the result of market forces. It is the result of decades of struggles by unionists who suffered and died at the hands of the police during events such as the 1936 On–To–Ottawa Trek. Those union pioneers believed that in order to create a better world, power must be in the hands of the workers so that workers would be able to protect themselves from exploitation.

That struggle is reflected today in governmental institutions such as the Workers’ Compensation Board, Unemployment Insurance and Medicare. As well, other victories such as minimum wage legislation, collective bargaining rights and the standard 8–hour–day/40–hour–week have become no more than ghosts in the machine.

Is this generation of workers going to throw those sacrifices out the window through disorganization and despair?

One would hope not, but with each new, cheap restaurant advertising for young, energetic waiters and offices advertising for young, “bright” junior secretaries, the possibility exists. There is not a lack of profit in the world today, but there is an unfair distribution of wealth derived from labour.

This generation will be facing the grim reality of a 1990’s recession. Only when youth begin to see their problems as something beyond their individual control will the union movement have an opportunity to help these youth organize themselves.

Young people will learn the lessons unionists have learned in the past, of that there is no doubt. But will youth learn from history or repeat it? One would think that there is not enough time to repeat 50 years of hard work.

This article appeared in The Connexion Digest #54, February 1992.

A. Paul Gill, in the Canadian Tribune. A. Paul Gill is coordinator of the Canadian Farmworkers’ Union and a member of the Young New Democrats’ Youth and Labour Committee. Subscriptions to the Canadian Tribune are $15/year from 290A Danforth Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4K 1N6.



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