Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Labour Unions

For most of my working life, I belonged to a union.  I'm glad I did.  Today, I have a comfortable pension; the majority of my health care premiums paid; as well as extended health care benefits, which cover 70% of prescription drug costs and other health-related items.  When I was employed,  I had decent working conditions and fairly certain job security.  I also had a voice in my employment.

I've also been in and seen situations in which the employees had little power.   Between 1968 and 1971,  I worked off and on with the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (today the United Farm Workers of America), headed by Cesar Chavez.  Farmworkers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which means that they can't compel an employer to bargain with their union, even if a majority desire it.  The result is an industry which has the lowest paid jobs, harshest working conditions, least job security of any. Most agricultural labour in the U. S. (and possibly Canada) is performed by immigrants, many undocumented, who have few legal rights, and are left to the mercy of labour contractors.

Many employers in the U. S. and Canada ignore labour laws.  I once worked for an employer, who ignored the Ontario Hours of Work Act, which required an employer to pay overtime rates to employees  working more than 48 hours in a week.  Some of the staff complained to me about this. When I called it to my employer's attention, he told me that it was none of my business.  I attempted to report the practice to the Ontario Employments Standards Branch and was told that they didn't believe me, and that only persons directly affected could file a complaint.  I attempted to sign up staff for a union, was only partially successful, and was informed by my employer that I had resigned.  When I applied for Employment Insurance benefits, I was penalized for quitting my job.  When I told the EI worker that I had been fired for trying to organize a union, he told me to appeal through the union, which of course I couldn't do.  If you think getting union recognition is easy, it's not.

I believe that employees should have a voice in their workplace.  Some people resent  "the power" of unions.  I think they are misinformed.  Most of the power lies with the employer.  Having a united front is one way of exercising  influence, which an individual would never have.   

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Independent, Determined, and Puritan

Ralph Shepard (1603-1693) Bell Rock Cemetery, Malden, Massachusetts
On April 24, 1634, my ancestor, Ralph Shepard (1603-1693), a tailor from Limehouse, Stepney Parish, London, England, was summoned before the Court of High Commissions, an ecclesiastical court , established for the purpose of reforming and correcting persons engaged in "heresies, schisms, abuses, offences,  contempts,  and enormities" against the Church.  The result is unknown, but on June 30, 1635, Ralph, his wife ThankesLord, and his two-year old daughter Sarah, sailed for the American colonies aboard the ship Abigail.  They eventually settled in the Massachusetts communities of Dedham, Weymouth, Malden , and Concord.

Ralph and ThankesLord were Puritans.  The communities that they established were not tolerant nor multi-cultural.  The covenant that Ralph signed at Dedham pledged, "that we shall by all means labour to keep from us all such as are contrary-minded".

Ralph's daughter Trial married Walter Power(s) (1640-1708), probably an indentured servant taken from the streets of Ireland at an early age (14) and contracted for six years of service to his sponsor. Unfortunately for Trial and Walter, they got a little ahead of themselves and were cited for unlawful intimacy prior to marriage, resulting in a sentence of public flogging.  Ralph paid his daughter's fine and she escaped the punishment, but apparently Walter took the fifteen stripes by the constable.

A few generations later, Walter and Trial's ggrandson, Jeremiah Powers, Jr. (1733-1801), living at Greenwich, Massachusetts, married Elizabeth Cooley (1734-1823), gggranddaughter of Benjamin Cooley, who gave evidence at the trial of Hugh and Mary Parsons for practicing witchcraft in 1650.

Elizabeth's brother, Gideon Cooley, founded Pittsford, Vermont, spending the winter of 1767 at the site, guarding it against Yorkers, who also claimed the Vermont area.  Another brother, Benjamin Cooley III, was with Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, when they captured Fort Ticonderoga in 1775.  Jeremiah and Elizabeth eventually moved to Pittsford, Vermont, along with other family members.  

Vermont became the fourteenth state in 1791.  Whether it was carved out of New York or joined as an independent republic (Republic of  Vermont, 1777-1791) is a matter of historical interpretation.

Additionally, Elizabeth's sister Eunice married Benjamin Garfield in 1752.  They lived at Northfield, Massachusetts, in a blockhouse for protection against the Natives.  However, in an attack by the Natives in 1755, Benjamin drowned attempting to escape across a river, Eunice was taken captive and forced to walk to Canada, where she was sold as a slave to French-Canadians.  She eventually persuaded the family to free her (for a price) and returned to Massachusetts.  Happily, she remarried and lived a long life.

Some of Jeremiah and Elizabeth's grandchildren, Hosea (my ggggrandfather), Mary, and Justus Franklin Powers moved to Missouri in the 1840's, establishing a presence there which continues.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

My Jehovah's Witnesses friends told me that I was celebrating a Pagan religion by indulging Christmas, and that I was worshiping a false idol by having a Christmas tree.  I told them that I didn't worship the Christmas tree.  It was only for fun.

That's what Christmas should be.  Fun.

My JW friends, who claim that everything in the Bible is literally true, should have reflected that the Three Wise Men of the East brought the baby Jesus gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.  Perhaps that's where the idea of gift giving at Christmas began.  Clement Moore's poem, "Twas the Night Before Christmas", describes a "sleigh full of toys", presumably for the children.

Today, Christmas shopping is big business.  Retailers depend on it to make their year.  With the economy barely of of a recession, it's almost a duty to do your bit by helping out the merchants.

Some people love the shopping, the "getting into the Christmas spirit".  For others, its a burden, not knowing what to buy, who to include, as well as the financial stress.  Do you really want to buy someone a gift that they don't want or receive a gift that you don't care for?  For everyone who loves the excitement of being in the stores, there is someone who shops at the last minute, feeling the obligation. For them, it's not really fun, but something to get through.

We had gift exchange at work.  It was voluntary.  The spending amount was limited to $10 or $20; and everyone listed two or three items that  were in this range that they would like.  You knew that they would be satisfied with what you bought.  It seemed to work.

While I enjoy Christmas, I've never quite understood the need to give gifts to adults.  For some, exchanging gifts is tied to self-worth and approval.  Failing to provide sufficiently may be resented.  Children may notice if a brother or sister receives a more coveted gift than they do.  It becomes a sensitive situation. Do you really want self-esteem to be tied to the willingness of others to buy you things?

Personally, I belong to the group that would reduce the obligation of giving and receiving gifts, in favour of simply enjoying the get-together.  This can be just as much fun.

Monday, October 18, 2010

"Wouldn't It Be Nice!"

"Wouldn't it be nice!", a jingle I've heard again and again, promoting CHIP Home Income Plan reverse mortgages for seniors.  The ads tout the benefits: "Unlock the value in your home"; "Maintain ownership and control"; "Pay off your debts ".  The reality is that CHIP reverse mortgages are schemes for taking away the homes of seniors.

The prime feature is that you receive funds in a lump sum, and "no payments required for as long as you live in your home".  Yes and no.  If  "no payments required" means that you don't have to write cheques, then it's correct. However, the amount of the interest due is added each month to the lien on your property, and your equity is continuously reduced.  This is the "silent" payment.

Another advertised claim is that having this mortgage may make you debt-free.  This is true only if you don't consider the growing amount of your new mortgage a debt.

It may be true that you never have to make a payment for as long as you live in your home, but what guarantees that you will never need to move?  When you do, the amount of the reverse mortgage will be taken from the proceeds of the sale, possibly making it impossible for you to purchase another home.  You are then converted from a homeowner to a renter, a serious problem is you are retired and your only source of income is government pensions.

A far better choice for seniors who need cash is a secured home equity line of credit.  The interest rate is probably 2% less than the reverse mortgage (currently about 4% compared to 6%).  While the reverse mortgage has about $2,000 of upfront costs (closing costs, property appraisal, and independent legal advice), the line of credit may be provided free (or at a fraction of the cost of the reverse mortgage).  There is a payment due every month, but this can be covered by a comparable withdrawal, if necessary (less than the amount accruing on the CHIP mortgage).  The provider of the line of credit might withdraw it, but unlikely if  payments are made regularly.  Importantly,  the amounts withdrawn are only the amounts needed and the balance may be reduced at any time, without penalty.

The bottom line is that the home equity line of credit will cost you considerably less than the reverse mortgage and, if properly managed, preserve the equity in your home should you ever decide to move.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


When an individual finds himself with too much debt, there are several remedies he can try.  (1) He can cut back on his spending; (2) He can ask his boss for a raise; (3) He can increase his productivity (work more hours or get a second job); (4) He can run out on his obligations.

Federal governments can do similar things when faced with mounting debts.  (1) They can cut spending; (2) They can increase taxes; (3) They can attempt to grow the economy; (4) They can default on their debt.

Defaulting on the debt is the most distasteful, because it places in doubt the ability to raise funds in the future and, depending on the size the economy, can be socially and politically disruptive.  It is also morally corrupt. For the United States to default on its bonds, considered the safest debt in the world, would be disastrous.

Cutting spending and increasing taxes are generally unpopular with voters.  Therefore, governments hope that their economies will continue to grow.  Right now, that's not happening, or only modestly.   

Federal governments have a further choice that individuals usually don't have, unless there is a rich uncle willing to indulge them.  This is the central bank.  Central banks are able to loan their governments money to bail them out.  The loan may never be paid back.  Cynics call this "printing money".  The popular term today is "quantitative easing", meaning that the amount of money being supplied to the economy is increased. The consequence is usually inflation.  Carried to its extreme, it means the collapse of the value of money.

Societies are generally willing to tolerate a certain amount of inflation. Economists tell us that it is necessary to maintain employment.  Individuals may like it in terms of pay increases, although in real (inflation-adjusted) terms, these may be illusory.  Of course, it is another form of taxation and redistribution of wealth.

Whether the quantitative easing stimulates the economy (producing more wealth) or simply destroys savings remains to be seen.  Speculators have driven the price of gold to a record high.  Another bubble or a store of value?  There's sure to be lots of discussion.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Fortunately, I've never had any interest in smoking cigarettes.  Even when I was younger and my friends smoked, I was never tempted to imitate them.  Why would I want to get lung cancer?

Over the years, I have probably not objected to anything more than cigarette smoking, nor been ignored more.  Smokers need to smoke, the objections of others notwithstanding.

I've watched as friends and family have died prematurely.  I always wonder at smokers who don't try to discourage their adolescent children from smoking.  Don't they care about them?  My assumption is that they consider smoking together another form of family bonding.

Years ago, the smoke cloud would form in my workplace in the late afternoon.  The smoke burned your eyes.  My tough luck, I assumed.  After all, the smokers had their rights, and you could only be so miserable about it.

Later, smoking in the workplace was restricted to a designated office area, and finally banned indoors altogether.  Occasionally, an argument would break out as to the boundaries of the workplace.  If you smoked on the balcony, the smoke could still blow back in to the office.  If you smoked next to the outside air intake, the smoke could make its way back into the office.  Still, the improvement was substantial.

But the determined smoker won't give it up just to please others.  I guess you could say the same thing about the determined drinker or any other drug addicted personality.  They smoke no matter what the consequences.

You can watch the daily count of soldiers who die in Iraq or Afghanistan; their names and faces flashed for a moment on the TV screen or shown on the internet.  Victims of human folly.  Yet the deaths in those wars are insignificant next to the deaths from cigarette smoking.  As many people die in the U. S. every two days from smoking-related diseases as died in the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11.  You wonder who the greater terrorists are, Al Qaeda or the cigarette manufacturers?  It's all in your perception. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Joys of Traffic

One of my Facebook friends, sitting in traffic and late for work this morning, posted her frustration at all the "stupid" people who were in her way and how "unreal" commuting was.  I was tempted to comment, but didn't want to add to her irritation.  Why didn't she live closer to work?  Why didn't she take transit?

Many people think that owning a motor vehicle is a necessity.  Not really.  People drive when they could walk.  Many never take transit at all, although sometimes it's faster, certainly less frustrating, probably less expensive.  During the transit strike a few years ago, I carpooled with three other co-workers for a few weeks.  It wasn't very difficult.  I didn't leave any earlier or get to work any later.  After the strike, we returned to using transit.

I suppose the frustrations and cost of driving haven't yet reached the breaking point.  There are complaints when the cost of gas rises.  For awhile, sales of hybrids and more gas efficient vehicles rise.  However, as soon as the price of gas recedes, the purchase of the big SUVs returns.  Drill deeper, pollute more.  

Henry Ford created the moving assembly line over a hundred years ago, transforming the ownership of vehicles from a luxury for the rich to a necessity for the working person.  This was, of course, hailed as a great achievement.  Part of the American dream.  So as you sit in traffic during your daily commute, listen to the music and enjoy it.