October 27, 2014

News | March 21, 2014
McGill labour union hosts lecture on capitalism
Highlighting the tension between capitalism and workers

On March 12 Luis Padilla, a faculty lecturer at McGill, presented a talk concerning the nature of capitalism from a labour perspective. The discussion was presented by the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA) to raise awareness about the free market economy, neoliberalism, greed, property protection, and what effect these phenomena have on workers.

MUNACA is a union at McGill comprising around 1,700 employees who occupy non-academic positions. According to a MUNACA member Nancy Crowe, “The talk emphasized what the capitalism means for the ordinary worker.”

“This idea [of how capitalism really works] goes back to the old days when those with a little bit more education would pass it to those who didn’t have a chance [to learn] in the working clubs,” she added.

Capitalism serving the wrong purposes

Padilla referred to Jim Stanford, a Canadian economist who works with unions, explaining that neoliberalism skews the popular perspective on what the economy actually is. The economy is not about the stock market, financial institutions, and speculation, but about the work done by people.

“We can see the traces of work everywhere. […] We see that the economy is determined by what people do,” Padilla specified.

He made it clear that there is a distinction between capital and labour, how the two work interact often creates a tension. Padilla pointed out that profit accumulation may seem to be compensation for risk-taking, but he concluded that this inference is a fallacy. “The purpose of the economy,” Padilla said, “is to meet human needs. […] If something [in the economy] is failing to meet human needs, it is not doing its job very well.”

Padilla provided the concrete example of gross domestic product (GDP), saying that it should not be used as a measure of well-being. He explained that it includes useless goods and services, but does not include useful ones, like housework. He pointed out that nevertheless, people are told that it is a worthwhile and important measure of economic health.

Ultimately, Padilla recognized that something is wrong with capitalism, but the alternative to it is yet to be found. To illustrate, he used the words of Richard D. Wolff, an economist who is interested in establishing democracy in the workplace. Wolff claims that people have democracy outside the workplace, but inside workplaces? there is a dictatorship.

Padilla suggested, “We can conclude that capitalism is working for us if it makes us prosperous, secure, if we have real choice, equality, […] and sustainability.”

Alternatives to capitalism

“What is important for the unions is the capacity and the confidence to challenge the traditional economic claims,” Padilla said. To do that, Padilla said, people have to develop economic literacy. He pointed out that “the interest of getting economic literacy is to try to do what you can within your own sphere of influence.”

When asked what developing economic literacy meant for her, Crowe replied, “[Understanding] the dynamic better. I think we are hoping to have more of an influence on our work environment. […] Whatever literate means to you, it means the same to us. It is just to be better informed, to wake up.”

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