Sunday, March 28, 2010

Women in the workforce: the lost revolution

A Canadian child care worker. Photo CTICareer.

The massive entry of women in the workforce after 1945 has been nicknamed “the silent revolution” and hailed by feminists as a major advance in the condition of women. I beg to differ.

When our first child was born seven years ago, my wife and I implemented a rigorous shift system which has remained in place since then. Days are divided in two equal parts. During each half-day, one of us is responsible for the kids and household chores, and the other is free to do whatever takes his or her fancy – work, sleep, garden, catch a movie, etc. Every day at 2:00 PM, we perform a change of the guard. Maintaining absolute equality in our domestic responsibilities has been something of an obsession in our couple, and this shift ritual of ours has generated a mix of admiration and irony on the part of many of our friends. The very first thing they ask us whenever they see us is “whose shift is it now?”

In keeping things equal, we mean business. In some areas we went radical. For example, we have decided not to breastfeed our two children. Yes, you read that well. That was the only way, we figured, to ensure that we would fully share the burden as well as the joy of having babies. Needless to say, that choice didn't fly too well with some people around us who were, shall we say, principled on the question of breastfeeding. But overall, our shift system has served us well over the years in maintaining a level of sanity.

Corporate black hole

Meanwhile, many other couples that we know have descended into a state of chronic imbalance and unhappiness over the question of child and house care. Time and again, we have seen mom take over the kids and domestic chores in addition to her day job, pushing herself to the limit, while dad was increasingly sucked into a corporate black hole, clocking 60+ hours per week while still being paid a mere 40 by his employer. The tensions within such couples were sometimes quite palpable and painful to observe from the outside.

I was clearly detecting a pattern in those behaviors that we witnessed in so many good couples. And no, that pattern was not that women were being abused by their macho husbands. Rather, it was that both him and her were working increasingly hard and neither was getting any happier in return. Why did mom have to work double shifts, I wondered, both at work and at home? Why was dad spending such an unnatural – and plain illegal – number of hours at the office rather than being at home to do his part and watch his kids grow?

I performed some research to attempt to answer those questions, and here are some of the facts that I uncovered:

The “silent revolution” in nine figures
  • 1. Canadian women’s participation in the workforce has increased very rapidly over the past 30 years: +40% between 1976 and 2004. Today, about 60% of women are at work. This phenomenon is often referred to as the “silent revolution” and is hailed as a tremendous advance in the condition of women. (Source: Statistics Canada)
  • 2. Canadian women’s individual incomes stand at about 80% of men’s incomes in 2005, a marked improvement over 1980 when women made only about 65% of men’s incomes. (Source: Conference Board of Canada)
  • 3. However, the median earnings of Canadian households increased by less than 10% over the same period between 1980 and 2005 in constant dollars. (Source: Statistics Canada)
  • 4. As for the median earnings of Canadian individual workers (whether they are members of a household or not), they have increased by a whopping 0% – yes that’s zero percent – between 1980 and 2005 in constant dollars. (Source: Statistics Canada)
  • 5. Young Canadian women (25 to 29 years old) have seen their income gap with young men narrow down, from 75% in 1980 to 85% in 2005. That’s obviously an excellent result. However, the income increase of young women has remained flat at 0% (zero percent) during the same period in constant dollars. How is that even possible? Only because during that period, the earnings of young men have dropped substantially. The income gap reduction among young Canadians was thus not achieved through an improvement of the condition of young women, but through a marked deterioration of the condition of young men. (Source: Statistics Canada)
  • 6. Over that same period (1980-2005), young Canadian women’s educational achievement – i.e. whether they hold a university degree or not – has doubled from 20% to 40%. Yet, as noted above, young women have received no added compensation whatsoever from their employers in exchange for that academic achievement. (Source: Statistics Canada)
  • 7. The Canadian household savings rate was about 20% of disposable income in 1980. It has fallen to 0% (zero percent) in 2005. And that number is actually negative in British Columbia: -6%. (Source: Vanier Institute)
  • 8. The Canadian household debt was 86% of disposable income in 1980 and has soared to 120% of disposable income in 2005. (Source: Vanier Institute)
  • 9. Meanwhile, the average North American worker needs to work a mere 11 hours per week today to produce as much as one working 40 hours in 1950. That amounts to an approximate 400% increase in the productivity of labor over the post-war period (Source: US Department of Labor
Pauperized households

Those numbers tell the sobering story of the average Canadian household’s gradual slide towards pauperism over the past 30 years. That story, in my analysis, is the primary cause of the intractable problems that many working mothers are facing today in Canada as they are increasingly divided between their career and household obligations. Sexism and gender discrimination, while undeniable, are at best a secondary factor. One only needs to consider the income gap between men and women, a traditional indicator of the condition of women: it has become fairly narrow in Canada and keeps improving over time, suggesting that men and women are receiving an increasingly equal treatment from their employers in terms of their compensation. On the other hand, over that same period the financial situation of the Canadian household has been almost completely frozen. And that has a direct, massive, and disproportionately adverse impact on the condition of working women. Here is why.

Women’s massive entry into the Canadian workforce means that in effect, the labor power of the average Canadian household has doubled from one to two workers. Yet as pointed out the household's income has stagnated. The obvious question, then, is – whatever happened to the money earned by that second worker? According to StatsCan, mom’s work has not made any significant difference in the household's finances when compared to 1980, which is tantamount to saying that mom is working today virtually for free. Add to that the increase in dad's unpaid overtime and the dramatic jump in both mom and dad's labor productivity over that period, and you are contemplating a utterly shocking discrepancy between the amount of work produced by the household and the amount of money that it receives in return.

That, in a nutshell, is the nature of the “silent revolution” which feminists hail as this great advance in the condition of women in North America. If you're not impressed by the outcome of that revolution, well – you're not alone.

Dispossession by other means

In volume 1 of Capital, Karl Marx covered in much detail the key concept of primitive accumulation. The question of how proto-capitalists have historically managed to accumulate capital in the first place has obsessed classical economists since Adam Smith. To solve this riddle, Marx presented a compelling account of England’s peasantry in the 16th and 17th  centuries. He described how large swaths of the rural population were violently divorced from their traditional means of self-sufficiency. With the active cooperation of the English state, landlords physically enclosed the commons and forced the peasants and their families off their lands, effectively transforming them into vagabonds and thieves. The English state concurrently enacted particularly repressive anti-vagabondage laws which forced expropriated peasants to become salaried workers in the newly established factories of Manchester and Birmingham, as a means to avoid both prison and starvation. Thus capitalism was born, according to Marx, out of brute repression and naked violence on the part of the English state and ruling class.

Marxist scholars (E. Mandel, D. Harvey among others) have since argued that primitive accumulation did not just occur this once at the beginning of capitalist times, but rather happens on a continual basis every time a publicly owned resource – i.e. a part of “the commons” – is appropriated, enclosed, or otherwise privatized, with the result of dispossessing people and forcing them into wage labor.

I hypothesize that the mass entry of women into the workforce after World War II is the continuation of capitalist primitive accumulation by other means. Up until 1940, most women were locked inside their households, essentially performing what amounted to slave labor. Tasks traditionally included education and health care of the children and elders, cooking, cleaning, household finance and accounting, etc. Women were kept under the tight control of men through the combined powerful forces of ignorance, financial dependence, and all too often physical violence. That life was hell. Women had to break free. And that’s what they did, as soon as men and society gave them an opportunity to do so during the two world wars.

The imprisonment and forced labor of women inside the household was also bad business for the capitalist class. Indeed, women and their domestic work were largely off-limits to the market. Capitalists needed women to break free in large numbers if they were ever going to tap into that virtual gold mine, namely the various trades traditionally performed by women for free inside the household – education, health care, food preparation, cleaning, personal accounting, etc. – as well as the labor power of the women themselves.

And so, after the war, capitalists became a progressive class, one which advocated the liberation of women. They extended to women an open invitation to take their valuable skill sets out of the domestic realm and onto the open market. They also supported women in their demands for access to higher education. And it worked: many women left the home to take on jobs in nascent industries which had traditionally been their exclusive domain inside the household (child care being a prime, but far from isolated, example) while others decided to boldly go where few woman had gone before – get a university education and take a man's job.
    The working mother's double bondage

    The rest, as they say, is history. Today, most working mothers find themselves in a double bondage. Bondage of the corporation which exploits them 40 hours per week for sub-standard wages. And bondage of the man, still, since in effect many mothers continue to work hard in the household for free as they did before the so-called “silent revolution”, but this time in addition to their day job. That second bondage of the man is more complex to comprehend and ties back to the question of household overwork and under-compensation.

    Many men today are forced by the market to accept increasing amounts of overtime against their will for fear of losing their job, while women are more easily exempted from overwork by their employers, for child care considerations. The household however, as we have seen, is no wealthier today than 30 years ago in spite of having two workers instead of one, and is therefore mostly unable to purchase the domestic services that women used to perform for free at home and are now offering for a wage on the open market. Arguably, the chores of the household are less labor intensive today as they were 30 years ago, thanks to better appliances. But, clearly, they have not disappeared and certainly someone still needs to feed, bath, educate, and entertain the kids. And that someone is out of necessity the woman, since the man is nowhere to be seen as he is increasingly stuck at work for no extra pay. The corporate culture and peer pressure applied upon dad is pretty intense, as are other subtle forms of social indenture such as household debt. Together, they conspire to ensure compliance with the unnatural and illegal work practices that men are increasingly submitted to. That is how women end up being just as overworked and underpaid as their men – through the forced offloading of the household chores onto their shoulders.

    Capitalist masterstroke

    Quite a revolution indeed! If you are a capitalist, that is. The capitalist class is the big winner of the so-called “silent revolution”, which I would rather characterize as a silent devolution for both working men and women. First, capitalists have successfully gained access to the previously unreachable realm of the household and incorporated it to the market while transforming women into wage laborers, thus reiterating the act of primitive accumulation. Second, they have managed the amazing exploit of acquiring women’s labor power without actually having to pay for it – by simply keeping the aggregate income of the household at a flat level over time. Thirdly, they have accomplished this jaw-dropping coup de maĆ®tre without having to shed a drop of blood or fire a single shot, unlike their 17th century English predecessors. All they had to do was surf the historical wave of women breaking free from the household, and divert it to their own profit.

    Sexism is an ugly beast and quite alive today, even in forward-thinking Canada. There is no denying it. But fundamentally it is a distraction from the core issue of the average household’s impoverishment to the benefit of the capitalist class. Capitalists want us to have a war of the sexes at home: as long as we do, we won't be focusing on the corporation's unethical and illegal labor practices which sabotage the household. Sexism has been weaponized, it is used today to subdue the middle class by maintaining it in an endless and exhausting state of domestic civil war, just as alcohol was once used by the white man to destroy the minds and bodies of the indigenous people.

    What, then, is to be done? Well, a strictly egalitarian shift system involving bottle-feeding the kids is certainly not for everyone, and breastfeeding is no doubt one of the most beautiful gifts of a mother to her baby. Shifts worked for us, but it I can definitely see how they would not work for all. A more realistic approach may be to constitute family trade unions, whose purpose would be to take the daily struggles of Canadian households inside the walls of the corporations where they belong. Such unions would not just focus on labor relations as other unions do, but rather on labor relations in the context of their adverse impacts on households. The day that a male employee will tell his dumbfolded boss “sorry but I can't stay any longer tonight because my wife has lodged a grievance with our family union and I could get fined for that” – will be a very good day indeed!


    Monday, March 22, 2010

    Itinerary for Alex Morton's Get Out Migration

    Here's the itinerary for Alexandra Morton's Get Out Migration (thanks to Don Staniford for posting that).

    More details will be posted on as they become available.

    (In particular, I'll try to gather info for those who cannot walk more than a couple kilometers or would like to participate in a manner that does not require walking. Stay tuned...)

    22nd April - Broughton Archipelago/Alert Bay/Sointula (and Clayoquot Sound)
    23rd April – Sointula/Port McNeill (peopl...e joining from Port Hardy)
    24th April - Nimpkish Lake (event also in Tofino?)
    25th April - Zeballos Junction (people joining from Gold River)
    26th April - Woss
    27th April - Sayward
    28th April - Quadra Island
    29th April - Campbell River/Courtenay/Comox
    30th April - Big Qualicum River/Parksville
    1st May - Port Alberni (people joining from Tofino)
    2nd May - Nanaimo
    3rd May - Ladysmith/Saltspring Island
    4th May - Saltspring Island
    5th May - Duncan
    6th May - Bamberton
    7th May - Sidney/Saanich (meet people coming from Vancouver/Fraser River/Adams River)
    8th May – Victoria (meet ferry from Vancouver and walk final 25km to Victoria)
    9th May - Victoria (Mother's Day blessing)


    Thursday, March 18, 2010

    Bute Inlet power project on the ropes

    Grizzly bears at the Orford River, Bute Inlet. Photo Isabelle Groc, Tidelife Photography.

    For months, the writing has been on the wall that BC’s river privatization scheme was in deep trouble. Well folks, we’re here. The entire scheme spawned by the BC Liberals and their corporate friends is facing potential collapse, starting with its flagship – General Electric and Plutonic Power’s Bute Inlet megaproject. That project is not technically dead yet, but from where we stand it looks like it has entered a slow and irreversible agony.

    Plutonic has just announced that it was pulling the Bute Inlet proposal out of BC Hydro's 2008 clean power call. “There are too many things unanswered”, Plutonic CEO Donald McInnes offered as an explanation. “We need to study more fisheries patterns,” Plutonic spokesperson Elisha McCallum said. “We need to study more of the grizzly bear habitant. We need to study more vegetation and riparian areas habitat. We just need to have a better grouping of data that will be solid for us to take forward to a federal panel review.”

    “It's just a matter of timing,” McCallum quickly added. “We still believe that Bute is an exceptional opportunity that'll be developed in due course.”

    Hmm, right. No doubt, the prospect of a federal panel review can be daunting for even the most experienced group of corporate executives. But it's quite obvious that environmental considerations are not why Plutonic and GE have pulled the plug on the Bute until further notice. More fundamentally, the conditions required to realize the stealth enclosure of BC’s rivers behind the back of the public have ceased to be favorable. The tide has turned against the neoliberal camp. Some of those new conditions are:

    • A global energy overproduction crisis which, in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown and the ongoing solar power revolution, has made the return on investment of private hydro projects increasingly doubtful for large players such as General Electric, and ever more dependent on massive public subsidies which the increasingly impoverished BC government is less and less likely to pay.
    • California lawmakers stubbornly refusing to amend the law to “green up” BC’s run-of-river energy, in spite of Campbell and Schwarzenegger’s massive war machine deployed to change their minds, thus depriving BC’s private power industry of a viable export market. A small group of environmentalists both in BC and California have relentlessly lobbied the legislature in Sacramento, urging them to stay their healthy skeptical course. Those people are untold heroes.
    • The successful mobilization of a grassroots movement in BC to save our rivers, making the general public increasingly aware of the private power scam and thus turning projects such as Bute Inlet into PR nightmares for General Electric and other transnational corporations.
    In surprising ways, the sentiment of joy is not unlike that of mourning: accepting reality can take time. As I obsessively read again and again the media releases and articles streaming through the web following Plutonic’s announcement, it gradually sinks in. Bute Inlet may actually survive. Orford Bay’s grizzlies may actually be permitted to remain in their habitat and thrive under the expert and caring stewardship of the Homalco people. Our children may actually be able to travel to the inlet, hike its ridges and forests, or just know from a distance that it’s still there in all its magnificence.

    There has never been a better time to join the battle to save our rivers. Unlike General Electric, your return on investment could be quite excellent. Indeed, you could actually get to see the results of your involvement in this campaign, which is more than most veteran environmentalists can claim. The Wilderness Committee and other allied groups are organizing events on March 30 in Victoria and April 6 in Vancouver (details below), where you will hear some of the campaign's prime architects and meet with activists energized by a recent string of victories.

    If our analysis of the underlying economic trends is accurate, if we are able to keep up the pressure, and if our luck doesn't turn, this campaign could emerge as one of the most stunning victories registered by BC's environmental movement in decades.


    The Victoria event is on Tuesday, March 30th from 7-9 pm, at the University of Victoria Social Science and Math Building, Room A120. For more information call Tria at 250 388 9292 or email

    The Vancouver event is on Tuesday, April 6th from 7-9 pm, at the Heritage Hall 3102 Main Street. For more information call Andrew at 604 683 8220 or email

    If you're not in Vancouver or Victoria, stay tuned: over the next couple of months we'll be doing more of these kinds of events in other parts of the province. If you're interested in helping to organize a meeting in your community please contact Andrew at


    Tuesday, March 16, 2010


    Policemen on strike applaud passing demonstrators. Only in Greece...

    Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

    Alexandra Morton: Get Out Migration

    Gandhi during the 1930 salt march.

    I am posting a call to action by Alexandra Morton which stands out of the ordinary. 

    She is calling residents of BC to stand up for the salmon, quite literally, by performing a migration. On Earth Day April 22, people are invited to walk to Victoria from wherever they live, to demand from government an immediate end to the fish farm scandal. 

    The walk will end in Victoria on Mothers' Day, May 9.

    There is a Gandhi inspiration to that initiative, and I like that. Our family - my wife and myself along with our 7-year old daughter and one-month old son - are planning to walk along with Alex. Obviously, people will not be required to walk hundreds of kilometers from their home to downtown Victoria (unless they actually want to), so I'll post specific details about the logistics of the event as I learn about them.

    Meanwhile, mark the date on your calendar and spread the news to your networks.

    In Morton's own words:

    "We cannot match the corporate fish farm PR machine, nor their lobbying power. So I am simply inviting people to make themselves visible by joining us on foot, electronically and by mail.   This will be peaceful, colourful, musical, fun, family oriented. Unless we all stand up and become visible, government will continue to degrade the laws of Canada to the benefit of the salmon farming industry, as suggested in the most recent throne speech."


    Salmon Are Sacred

    Last week a fish farm magazine (Intrafish) reported that stickleback fish are the source of sea lice, not salmon farms and our government scientist appeared to agree.  The non-government scientific community of BC have thoroughly and repeatedly trounced this, and yet here is it again.

    Therefore, I have decided it is time to take the issue of industrial salmon farming to the people in an unprecedented way. I have written letters, done the science, met with government and industry around the world, engaged in government processes, talked to thousands of people, been the subject of international media and films and today I stand facing a vertical wall of impenetrable denial. Nothing has brought reason to this situation. We will lose our wild salmon if government continues to carelessly put farm salmon before wild salmon every time.
    Because there has been no significant progress in spite of this enormous effort and time spent by many, I no longer feel there is hope of reforming this industry. Government is allowing Norwegian salmon farmers to continue denying even the most basic issues, like sea lice and ISA virus introduction to the North Pacific.  If we let this play out our wild fish simply will not survive
    So it is time for the Get Out Migration.  I am not talking about all aquaculture. I am referring specifically to the massive scale Norwegian feedlots.  There are Canadian fish farmers who know how to use tanks on land who are not impacting our wild salmon and herring. This is about saving wild salmon and all of us who depend on them.
    I will begin deep in the beautiful Ahta River in mid April with the salmon and move by boat through the Broughton Archipelago to Sointula. On Earth day April 22 I will simply start walking to Victoria and ask people join me to stand up for wild salmon so that our politicians will know we exist. We will communicate our progress and connect the countries facing this industry through the website org>  We hold salmon as sacred because they so generously feed our world. They built the soil of this province with their flesh, they grow our children, they feed the trees that make the oxygen we breath, they are food security in a world losing ability to even pollinate flowers.
    When we get to Victoria, we will meet with representatives from government.
    We cannot match the corporate fish farm PR machine, nor their lobbying power. So I am simply inviting people to make themselves visible by joining us on foot, electronically and by mail.   This will be peaceful, colourful, musical, fun, family oriented. Unless we all stand up and become visible, government will continue to degrade the laws of Canada to the benefit of the salmon farming industry, as suggested in the most recent throne speech.  The salmon farming industry cannot survive unless is it free to grow relentlessly to meet their responsibility to their European shareholders. BC cannot survive this, we know we cannot pour an endless amount of fish into the ocean. We will carry a message to the Federal government – do not degrade the Fisheries Act again so that it no longer protects the fish that belong to the people of Canada.
    Please stand up for wild salmon by joining a migration emerging from the Broughton Archipelago then leaving Sointula on 22nd April and closing with a blessing in Victoria on Mothers’ Day (9th May). If you are interested in hosting other events, leading a migration arm from the Fraser River Valley, Gold River or other places in B.C. or just joining us for one step of the way please let us know. org> This website will be active shortly.

    Hope to see you on this migration.

    Alexandra Morton