Academic journal article Social Justice

Resisting Neoliberalism in Vancouver: An Uphill Struggle for Cleaners

Academic journal article Social Justice

Resisting Neoliberalism in Vancouver: An Uphill Struggle for Cleaners

Article excerpt

Introduction (1)

NEOLIBERALISM IS INCREASINGLY BEING CHALLENGED LOCALLY AND GLOBALLY (Bello, 2003; Starr, 2000). Its international disrepute stems from an examination of the social, economic, political, and ecological costs of market freedom and "flexible" capitalism. In the recent Worldwatch Institute Report on the "State of the World," Bright (2003: 5) writes, "ours is a world in which increasing numbers of people lack the means of a decent life." Almost one-quarter of the globe's population (1.2 billion people) survives on one dollar or less a day (Ibid.). The "trickling down" of economic benefits created by unleashing the power of private capital has turned into a "mist" for those outside the bourgeoisie, but for those already super rich, it has been a large windfall of richness. Coming under increasing scrutiny has been the obscene hoarding of wealth by multinational corporations, as more and more people suffer economic hardships and uncertain futures in the North, and the expropriation of resources and exploitation of people in the South continue unabated. The corruption of many CEOs of the largest corporations in the North (e.g., Enron, WorldCom) has also begun to undermine the legitimacy of corporate capital and the new neoliberal program.

As Tabb (2003: 153) notes, "a radicalizing process is indeed under way." Challenges to neoliberalism have also emerged from the program's internal contradictions (Bello, 2003). Anti-globalization movements have been key agents in delegitimizing and unpacking the nasty one-sidedness of the neoliberal regime in the North and South (Starr, 2000; Brecher, Costello, and Smith, 2000; Klein, 2002). Structural adjustment programs, these movements argue, reposition the wealthy by shifting the politics of place to further control and exploit the working class worldwide (Start, 2000). In the North, anti-globalization movements point out that the dismantling of the welfare state has had serious consequences for the life changes of multitudes of people. Due to the disregard for the well-being of citizens, the circumvention of such national programs, as well as the nationstate's complicity, are unacceptable if not criminal (McBride and Shields, 1997).

Anti-capitalist globalization movements believe the dismantling of supranational organizations such as the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the WTO (World Trade Organization) is necessary since these organizations are the agents of neoliberalism and work through undemocratic means (Bello, 2000; Tabb, 2000). For Sam Gindin (2003), the anti-globalization protests in Seattle represented the coming out of anti-capitalist critiques. In Seattle, the enemy--capitalism--was publicly identified in the North.

This article argues that cleaners in Vancouver are experiencing widespread abuse, exploitation, and insecurities in an industry that is increasingly aggressive in pursuing economic advantages on the backs of workers. Employers are able to do this because of an anti-labor government that insists upon "reborning" business without organized labor (Tieleman, 2002b). Cleaners are thus being permanently marginalized in the workplace and in civil society. This article summarizes attacks by the new British Columbia government on organized labor and discusses the climate for labor relations in the province. Throughout, I seek to show how this new context affects janitors in Vancouver. Fieldwork was conducted in the summers of 2001 through 2004 in Vancouver, and relies on interviews with politicians, cleaners, community activists, and trade unionists. The last section describes recent resistance by the Hospital Employees Union (HEU) to the marginalization of cleaners.

Neoliberalism in British Columbia

Neoliberalism is unevenly embedded spatially (Antipode, 2002; Brenner and Theodore, 2002; Castree, 2000). Some governments are coerced into falling into line with this new regime (e.g., Venezuela), under pressure from capital and global actors such as the WTO or World Bank, lest the latter punish such governments for failure to comply. …

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