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Philip Jennings, UNI Global Union General Secretary, Says Stephen Harper Destroying Middle Class

06/19/2012 08:02 EDT | Updated 06/19/2012 09:17 EDT
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The head of one of the world's largest labour organizations has some harsh words for Stephen Harper.

For the past few days, Philip Jennings, general secretary of the Switzerland-based UNI Global Union, has been in Mexico for the G20, bouncing furiously between meetings with heads of state and global institutions in a bid to keep the issues of jobs, collective bargaining and social protections on the table.

As the economic picture darkens once again, he says these conversations have left him with an impression that many heads of state are beginning to come around to a view he has been championing since the early days of the global recession on the dangers of austerity and the importance of labour rights to recovery.

But as Jennings told The Huffington Post in a phone interview from Los Cabos, Harper is marching to his own drum — an approach he warns will result in “a very different kind of Canada.”

HuffPost: You have been busy making the case to world leaders that austerity isn’t working, and that they need to act on issues such as youth unemployment. How have they responded?

Jennings: There is a shared concern that the politicians are dealing with a very new world, [about] the power of financial markets, the boom swing in financial markets — you’re up in the morning and you’re down in the afternoon.

It’s extremely difficult to make good public policy with all of this financial turbulence around us. We’re in that age of turbulence, which is undermining our democracies, and you feel this.

You see the public opinion polls and the faith that people have in their governments has declined, and they feel that financial institutions simply have too much power. It’s a financial game being played which is costing jobs, investment and people’s money.

I think that the politicians are still coming to terms with the power of the financial markets, which goes to show once again that more has to be done to try and get them much more connected to the real economy than they are today.

Their reaction is that they feel like more has to be done on the jobs. They make the point that we need to consolidate fiscally, but we need to do more about demand. We need to do more for the economy.

We have not been told that we need psychiatric help.

HuffPost: It sounds like that hasn’t always been the case.

Jennings: Well, when we started this conversation with the leaders of the G20, there was something called the Washington Consensus. You deregulated. You left it to the markets. You didn’t need collective bargaining. You needed to be flexible and the markets would win.

What we have seen is that the Washington Consensus has not delivered the goods. So when we come back in and say, ‘Look, the market has failed.’ They understand. When we come back in and say, ‘You need to improve banking regulation,’ I think they understand. When we say that we need a financial transaction tax, many of the world leaders are convinced that his is the way to go. [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel wants a financial transaction tax.

HuffPost: So what do you make of the approach of the Canadian federal government, which continues to champion the virtues of austerity, and has recently intervened in the collective bargaining process in several high-profile labour disputes?

Jennings: Stephen Harper is a male version of Margaret Thatcher. This man has an employer’s agenda, which has nothing to do with the welfare of the Canadian people, and he’s using this opportunity to dismantle the social safety net of the nation.

Just look south at what has happened when collective bargaining disappears in the private sector and the public sector: levels of inequality that we have never seen; wages that have stood still for a quarter of a century; and the overall economic health of the world leading economy has suffered.

Stephen Harper is destroying the middle class of Canada. He’s choking the balance of power away from working people, and I think a different kind of Canada will emerge as a result.

HuffPost: How does this compare to what’s happening in most other G20 countries?

Jennings: To have this ideological onslaught by a political leader in Canada is completely out of step for example with the person I just met, Angela Merkel. She said to me that without collective bargaining, without proper social protections [...] Germany would not have emerged from the crisis.

I feel Stephen Harper is out on a limb at the G20. And fortunately, his view and mood is not prevailing. He’s on his own.

HuffPost: Are you planning to meet with him?

Jennings: No. Ken Georgetti of the Canadian Labour Congress [who is also in Los Cabos] met with him prior to the G20.

HuffPost: In Canada and elsewhere, organized labour has been struggling to win back the hearts and minds of the general public. Unions have a bit of a public relations problem on their hands.

Jennings: Yeah, because the private sector and their political friends can hire the best communications people in the world. They hire the best lawyers. They hire the best marketers. They hire the best advertising agencies, and they say, ‘How can we delegitimize the trade union movement in the eyes of the Canadian public?’

We have to understand that there’s a process underway to delegitimize the trade union movement. So they attack their leaders, they question the whole model. This is communications union busting at the highest level.

HuffPost: How widespread is this complaint?

Jennings: We see it worldwide. I talk to the Irish trade union leaders, and they talk about delegitimization. I go to Greece and then I go down to Australia and to other countries, and there’s a kind of constant [attempt] to divide working people, and try to split them from the organizations that are tying to do something for them.

HuffPost: The next G20 will take place in Russia in 2013. How do you think the global labour movement and the world economy will look then?

Jennings: With the continuation of current thinking, we will see a further deterioration in employment markets. Unless there’s a change in direction in terms of economic thinking, the economy will not recover, purchasing power will not recover and jobs will not recover.

With the irresponsible behaviour of financial markets, we’re in for a very difficult and bumpy ride, and it’s important that unions stand firm. It’s important that we continue to take our message to working people. It’s important that we continue to organize. It’s important that we continue to connect, because at the end of the day, it’s work that connects us all.