Working hard or hardly working

I had an interesting political conversation this morning. I am generally of the left-wing persuasion — tremors of shock echo through the very small readership of this blog — but it’s always interesting to chat with people from other political leanings. Lately we’ve lost that ability to talk among ourselves and disagree or find common ground. When was the last time you said that’s an interesting point to someone with different political leanings?

The thing that sticks with me from our discussion is the idea of work. The person I was talking to said that they were okay with some government programs and services, they just want to make sure that people work and earn stuff. My reaction was okay we have something here. I agree that people should work.

The difference between the left and the right on this front is the question of whether or not they will work, or are already working. Somehow the left has failed to be the answer on this.

When I think about work I think of all the people out there dying and failing to stay afloat while working endlessly and doing the best they can. Some people can’t work for a variety of reasons, but I’m not prepared to make assumptions about why that is. Sure, some people are lazy and useless, I’ve done enough group projects to harbour no illusions. Still the vast majority of people I know want to work and will work. A lot of them are working and not getting by. The dream of stable hours and health insurance seems far off and distant for many.

I’ve worked jobs that were awful. One was a retail job where I was scheduled 6 days a week for four hour shifts. Because I had to pay for a two zone fare in Vancouver I spent the first hour of each shift earning the cost of transit. The other three didn’t cover basics like food and rent. I was working six days a week and not earning enough for it to be worth showing up. They had one full-time employee. The rest of us were part-time waiting to be fired after Christmas. They also liked to cancel our shifts on short notice.

I did not get insurance. I did not get a living wage. I did not survive. I was working all the time but not in a way that respected me or allowed me to live.

Now I have two gigs. Neither guarantee me hours. Neither give me benefits. I am working and working and can’t see a way to have another job. Still I am poor and not getting by. I don’t have coverage for dental or the ability to cover rent that in some neighbourhoods is more than I earn each month.

Social democracy is great for business and it’s great for giving people who are working really hard rights and protections, and access to basics like prescriptions, dental and glasses. It’s great for making sure that people who might be working multiple jobs can actually afford food and housing — trust me a lot of them can’t right now.

Being an entrepreneur is risky and prone to failure. For people to leap they need to know that there is a floor they won’t fall below. Obamacare was great for small business owners and expanded medicare in Canada would be great for contract workers like me. These programs don’t cancel out work, they make it possible and worthwhile.

Let’s all agree that most of us are working, but that for many that work isn’t paying off like it’s supposed to or that for others it’s just too hard to find a good job. Some people are slackers, but I fundamentally believe that most people most of the time want to work. A lot of them already are. The DI here in Calgary gives out lunches for people staying there and going to jobs. That’s how bad things are. You can be working full-time and living in a homeless shelter. Let’s worry about that and not the occasional slackers.

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