Opinion » Maxed Out

Labour and livin' the dream...

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This weekend is Labour Day. If you're visiting from south of the border, first of all, thank you; we need the stronger currency you've stuffed into your pockets and hope to spend freely while you're here. Second of all, this weekend is Labor Day. Different country; different currency; different spelling; same meaning, longest undefended border, unless you count all those armed, uniformed border security people and that wall wingnut Republican — redundancy alert — Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin and shameless labour basher thinks is a good idea.

Labour Day was created to celebrate, well, labour. Not the kind of labour that made all our lives possible. For that we celebrate Mother's Day. In most of the world, Labour Day is also known as International Workers' Day and it's celebrated on May 1. In the U.S. and Canada, it's celebrated this weekend. We would probably celebrate it May 1 as well, but given our joint history fighting against all things remotely pinko we're loath to mark any celebration with socialist origins, which is ironic given the Second International created International Workers' Day to commemorate the Chicago Haymarket Massacre of 1886.

The Labour Day holiday in Whistler is an oxymoron. Very few people here enjoy a holiday. They're busy serving you breakfast, making the beds you slept in, washing the towels you left on the bathroom floor, cleaning your rooms, renting you a bike, selling you a lift ticket, flipping your burger, bringing you a couple of cold ones, cutting the greens you're three-putting, fixing your bike park boo-boos, giving you directions, entertaining your limited attention span, selling you a commemorative T-shirt and trying their hardest to make this a pleasurable weekend for you before you trundle off to your own work or school on Tuesday. In other words, livin' the Whistler dream.

Unfortunately, there aren't enough of them livin' that dream to keep all the businesses in Whistler running like a fine Swiss watch. A lack of labourers who will work while others celebrate Labour Day is Tiny Town's latest dilemma, joining a string of head-scratching problems we've grappled with in the last 40 years, an anniversary we're also celebrating this weekend.

It was 40 years ago the provincial NDP government of the day decided the nascent ski town of Whistler was neither fish nor fowl and decided to create a new type of municipal structure — the resort municipality. Unlike most things hammered out of compromise, the Resort Municipality of Whistler Act of 1975 was an immediate success!

Just kidding.

By the early 1980s, it looked like a dismal failure and Whistler looked like it was destined to be the next great resort ghost town, in its own way not at all dissimilar to the instant holiday resorts whose ghostly bones haunt the landscapes of sunny Spain or the half-built marinas that dot the Mediterranean. The only thing Whistler in the early '80s had more of than crushing interest payments was, wait for it, workers.

Everybody under the age of 25 who could say "UIC Ski Team" flocked to Whistler. Most worked badly paying jobs during the winter months, or hammered nails during the summer, and lived off the largesse of the land during the winter, which was to say unemployment insurance payments. There seemed to be no end of hippie-jocks who were lured by the lifestyle and unlimited outdoor opportunities the little resort offered.

And so it was until recently. There was always a new crop of fresh-faced seekers itchin' to live the dream. They arrived anxious to please and willing to face the prospect of low pay, multiple jobs, unreliable work schedules, pricey beer, cramped and expensive living quarters, STDs, capricious bosses and season-ending injuries. Many came for a winter and stayed a lifetime. Many more came for a winter and moved on. The success of the resort pretty much depended on that latter cohort.

But recently, they seem to come in greatly diminished numbers. The early twenty-somethings seem less willing to embrace the old dream. Theories abound. They don't want to work for exploitation wages. They don't want to work at all, having been spoonfed a phoney, self-esteem driven sense of success and entitlement their entire, coddled lives. They don't want to take a year or two off after school for fear of falling behind their peers in the ever-increasing hustle for careers or coveted barista jobs. They're not that into sports they can't play on their screens, controller in one hand, Doritos in the other. And so businesses suffer. The resort suffers. The quality of the experience suffers.

Local businesses were able to camouflage the early signs of this by bringing in people who were less picky about working conditions — "temporary" foreign workers. The Temporary Foreign Worker Program was a business owner's dream. With little or no real justification, other than enhancing profits, business owners could bring people in from countries where worker exploitation was a sacred way of life. Whatever pittance they were paid was more than they could make in the sweatshops at home, enough in fact to send money home to help out those left behind. They could be stuffed into living quarters Canadian kids weren't willing to accept any more, driven like borrowed mules, threatened with deportation if they complained and generally treated like slaves.

Notwithstanding this windfall, there were inevitably some business owners too stupid and/or too greedy to not take advantage of even a program designed to take advantage of the disadvantaged. They screwed the pooch for everyone who treated their temporary foreign workers with a modicum of humanity and drove even the heartless Conservative government to slam the door on the program. Well done, gentlemen. Even the most rapacious capitalists of the Gilded Age would be proud of you.

I'm not suggesting business owners in Whistler were nearly as bad as the folks who brought down the program. But many had grown reliant on this cheap, transient, limitless pool of labour. Now, all those forces are conspiring to turn their business dreams into nightmares and their only salvation is convincing a reluctant workforce to come to Whistler and live the dream their folks lived lo those many years ago.

But it's going to take more than a dream, more than the call of the ski hills, more than the over-priced Spirit Pass, more than affordable housing, more than a living wage, more than tepid recruitment efforts, more than reasonable and effective public transportation between Squampton and Pemberish.

What's it going to take?

Beats me. But in the ebb and flow of commerce, businesses in Whistler will either find a way to ride out the confluence of market and social forces or they'll go out of business. And that is just one possible solution to Whistler's labour shortage. In the arena of supply and demand, we just may have more labour demand than the supply available.


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