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Georges Campeau, From UI to EI: Waging War on the Welfare State.

Georges Campeau, From UI to EI: Waging War on the Welfare State, translated by Richard Howard (Vancouver: UBC Press 2005)

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED by Les Editions du Boreal in 2001, Georges Campeau's work ambitiously traces the history of (un)employment insurance in Canada from its inception to the present. A legal scholar and activist lawyer who fought many cases for the jobless who were denied unemployment benefits, Campeau employs an approach that combines political economy with discourse analysis, and is generally successful in linking the two. It seems only appropriate that the first full study of the UI system in Canada was done in French in Quebec, and then translated into English. UI is regarded as a social right in Quebec to a greater degree than elsewhere in Canada, and UI demonstrations demanding more consideration for Quebec workers have been frequent occurrences in Quebec. The Bloc Quebecois, which many Anglophones view as simply bent on keeping the federal government out of all social programs in Quebec, has been the most militant defender in Parliament of a return to the Liberal-era UI program, though they want the program for Quebec to be under Quebec jurisdiction.

Beginning with the familiar ground of unemployment insurance's origins in Bismarckian Germany and its spread throughout Europe, Campeau outlines the debates within Canada both before and during the Great Depression that led first to an abortive effort to introduce UI by the R.B. Bennett government in its dying days, and the eventual introduction of a new UI bill by Mackenzie King's administration in 1940 after the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the UK had decreed that the Bennett bill, which lacked provincial consent, was ultra vires. Campeau observes that the battle between left-wing forces, led by the Communist Party of Canada, for non-contributory unemployment insurance, and the right-wing supporters of UI who demanded contributions from potential recipients, was just one part of a larger war. The "unemployment insurance" for which the left were struggling had little to do with traditional capitalist notions of insurance in which rates were assessed on the basis of risk, and benefits reflected the contributions that individuals made. It was simply a name given to a wage replacement for the unemployed to be paid from general revenues, that is a redistributive mechanism. Since, at the time, only the wealthy paid taxes, they would be forced collectively to repay workers for the greed of their individual members who had taken workers' jobs away. This would either place collective capitalist pressures on individual businesses not to dismiss workers, or would create a crisis in capitalism as the wealth of the rich was redistributed to the penniless via a state insurance program. Either way, the capitalists would be deprived of the reserve army of labour, so important to strike-breaking and maintaining low wages.

By contrast, the right wanted to preserve capitalist property relations and the existing distribution of wealth among social classes. So it defended the more traditional, "actuarial" notion of insurance. In both the Bennett and King UI bills, that meant depriving seasonal workers and domestic workers of the right to participate in UI at all since the risk of their losing their jobs was so high. It also meant tying benefits to contributions. Only about 40 per cent of the labour force was covered by the 1940 bill. Interestingly, Campeau misses completely the gendered character of these bills, and does not include Ruth Pierson's important work on the issue in his bibliography. Campeau does, at other times, deal with gender issues related to UI but in a spotty manner.

During the Cold War, the reduced influence of the left, and especially the Communists, removed any notion of non-contributory UI from public debate. But the underlying struggle between "actuarial" and "social" approaches to UI continued, with business groups demanding a tightening of the program along lines of risk assessment, and trade unions and women's groups calling for the program to embrace all workers subject to job loss, and with adequate payouts to all of the unemployed, regardless of what benefits they had paid into the plan. The post-war liberal consensus, in which workers were to receive sufficient benefits from the state (or "social wages") to make socialism and militancy uninteresting to them, did result in gradual, if uneven, reforms of the UI program to include more workers. Fishers and others whose self-employment was largely illusory gradually came under UI. So did growing numbers of women workers, thanks to concerted campaigns by women's groups as well as labour against such practices as the denial of UI to pregnant women or women with small children. In 1971, the program was extended to all but a small group in the labour force, benefits were raised, and maternity benefits were introduced. Again, however, Campeau, who recognizes the importance of women's groups in securing the gains of the 1950s and early 1960s, seems unaware of the key role played by the women's movement.

The story after 1971 is the story of neoliberalism. The 1971 changes, though introduced at a time when unemployment was beginning an initially slow rise, were accompanied by government optimism that the economy would remain stable and there would be no rush of UI-seekers. That optimism quickly evaporated, and the Tory federal campaign of 1972 featured an attack on UI recipients that had racist and anti-foreigner overtones, even though the campaign was led by the supposed "Red Tory," Robert Stanfield. What began as minor cuts in the program here, there, and everywhere, became a mighty sword in the 1990s which ended with fewer Canadian unemployed persons being eligible for insurance payouts than had been eligible when the program was first introduced in 1940.

Campeau does make note of the social movements that fought the emasculation of the UI legislation at various turns, particularly in French Canada. But he does so in a rather cursory way, providing greater coverage of the continuing clashes in discourse between the right-wing and left-wing versions of EI. From the Mulroney government onwards, the 'actuaries' not only took over control once again of the UI agenda, but introduced new wrinkles that robbed workers' contributions and made the insurance program mainly a cash cow for governments that were decreasing corporate taxes during a time of recession, thereby pushing up levels of government debt enough to create 'deficit hysteria'. Contributions were raised while rules for eligibility were made tougher. This produced huge surplus revenues in the El account, which governments transferred to general revenue. Here was the opposite of the 1930's non-contributory UI: instead of general revenues paying for UI for workers, workers' incomes would make up for shortages in general revenues.

Campeau's detailed account is concise, thorough, and easy to follow. Its weakness lies in a failure to disaggregate the unemployed. There is little sense here of the racialized character of either unemployment or the treatment of individuals by the Un/Employment Insurance Commission. Gender is taken seriously at times, ignored at others. Fortunately, Ann Porter's Gendered States: Women, Unemployment Insurance, and the Political Economy of the Welfare State in Canada, 1945-1997 (Toronto 2003) complements Campeau's From UI to EI. Porter rarely concedes the existence of social class, but her book, read together with Campeau's more class-based reading, provides the reader with an excellent survey of the events and influences that have shaped today's EI system.

Alvin Finkel

Athabasca University
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Author:Finkel, Alvin
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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