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Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Only Rights We Have Are the Ones We Fight For

Oftentimes in life, just showing up to a fight is enough to end it. Thus was the case with my most recent battle a couple of days ago. My landlord attempted to take me to court to get me to pay for renovations they were doing. Yes, that is totally unfair, as well as completely illegal, but if I hadn't gone to court I'd have been charged more than $2,600 in absentia. They tried to lie and say we'd damaged a floor that had been in the building since it had been built. I won't bore you with all the details, but I will say that the guy who did our walk-through when we were looking at the place said they would fix the floor before we moved in. They didn't, but that tells you the damage was pre-existing.

The end result was that as soon as they saw we had shown up to court (they saw our names on the sign-in sheet) they decided they would be willing to go through a mediator rather than the adjudicator. Fancy that! We presented numerous pictures showing the water damage in the apartment that could only be pre-existing, and entirely out of the realm of our control. The roof had leaked for a long time, there's a wall in which there's a leaking pipe, and there is so much mold and mildew that I can no longer use my bedroom. By strange coincidence they were no longer interested in pursuing damages. Happily this mediation gave us the opportunity to bring up their numerous illegal activities without actually reporting them, but they took them a little more seriously at least. It also gave us the opportunity to let them know we'd happily be vacating the premises at the end of March. Yay!

Things became remarkably friendly during these proceedings, considering how nasty they tried to be. They talked about what great tenants we were, because we were quiet and always paid our rent. I guess they figured we were so nice that we would happily roll over and pay for them to replace the floor in our apartment. Right. The funny thing is, they truly have no clue how absolutely nasty I could have been. I could have forced them into bankruptcy had I chosen to make my complaints known with the appropriate legal parties. If I had chosen to be vindictive, the city would have come in and shut the place down. They would have been charged many thousands of dollars just to be able to continue as landlords.

Instead, I simply stopped them from screwing me over. If they had chosen to keep on with their case, I would have pulled out all the stops, of course, if for no other reason than to show the true state of their general character. Their blatant dishonesty would have been more than enough to have my case thrown out. As it is, that's what the end result was here, and they were forced to swallow the application fee of $170 for filing against us. They've also told us they're going to provide us with a good reference, etc. I don't care if they're doing it to placate us, as long as they don't screw up our reputation as tenants. Here they tend to keep a record, and it becomes really difficult to find a place to live if you've been a bad tenant - similar to having a bad credit rating.

It just goes to show, though, how far some people will go to get you to pay their bills for them, and how little you sometimes have to do to stand up for yourself. Just because there are laws that exist to protect us, does not mean we won't be taken unfair advantage of. Every time we do not force people in power to abide by the laws, the more likely they are to run roughshod over us. Landlords seem to be some of the worst, because so many of them are owner-operators, basically, uneducated in the terms under which they are allowed to continue said operations. They seem to think that because they buy a piece of property they automatically have the right to rent it out in any manner they choose. They don't, and the courts can remove their privileges as landlords. They can also be heavily fined and find themselves stripped of their property if it turns out to be unfit for residential use.

There are people in this world who have a gigantic sense of entitlement. They've somehow come to believe themselves above the law, or simply better than others around them. They feel like they deserve better treatment than that which they afford others. You find it a lot in wealthier people, who have never had to live through difficult times. People who inherit their wealth in particular, such as the Walton family brats who now run the Walmart empire, and the Koch brothers who now run Koch Industries. They didn't build their businesses themselves. They just suck every last ounce of profits out of them with no consideration for what they're doing to others. They simply do not care, and the government lets them get away with it.

Things aren't a whole lot better in Canada, but all companies are forced to comply with much higher minimum wages, and there's a lot more protection for employees up here. Yet, somehow, Canada has been listed as the number one country to do business in. A less complicated tax code helps. We have very little local interference in business, too, so businesses generally only have to deal with provincial and federal legislation, and they do not contradict each other in any case I've ever seen, because the contradictions have already been dealt with very simply. If the business runs across provincial lines, such as transportation, it's governed federally. If not, it's usually governed provincially.

Very few of our laws are municipal or regional. Sometimes they're managed by regional departments, but the laws are still provincial. I had American friends be confused about how little concern I showed for the mayor of Toronto being a crack-head, but truthfully there is almost no power in being the mayor of a city here. He could have done something stupid like have a garbage truck dumped onto someone's car, maybe, or change parking legislation, but that's about it. It wasn't until it came out that (allegedly) he was abusive to his wife, I even looked twice at him. As far as I (and most other Canadians) are concerned, scandals aren't really something we pay much attention to in politics. Drugs aren't legal here, but a lot of people think they should be, so people think nothing of offering to share a joint with their neighbours. My own mother smokes a fair bit of the stuff, which I find funny because I can't stand it. I don't mean that I judge anyone who does it. I just mean I don't like what it does to me, so I don't smoke it myself.

Over the last few decades, sadly, many people in North America have given up on the idea of fighting for their own rights. We had a big lull where we thought things weren't perfect, but it wasn't worth getting worked up about, but now we're seeing the harsh reality that crept up on us during our political slumber. In Canada our environment is being destroyed. The entire province of Alberta is a disgusting mess. Yes, people still live there, particularly since there are a ton of high-paying jobs, but it really isn't a healthy place. There are so many toxic spills in Canada, that they're almost uncountable. Close to 2,000 per year for the last 37 years. About 6 per day.

In the US, there are so many problems that may be unresolvable. The education system was attacked and dismantled a long time ago, so it becomes a struggle just to make people understand that there is a problem, much less what to do about it. George Carlin did a far better job of explaining it than I can here, but it boils down to a system of government wanting a population that is easily controlled. I'm hoping the people in both our countries wake up to the reality, and that we can come up with a solution before it's too late. However, so many just shrug their shoulders and say, "What's the point? There isn't anything we can do about it anyway."

Of course, that's exactly what they want you to think. And by "they" I mean the giant corporations that are profiting off our ignorance and inertia. The government itself wouldn't be a problem if big businesses weren't there to hand over the cash. In the US it's even legal to bribe your senators and congressional members. It's called lobbying. They have to be a lot more circumspect in Canada, but they still manage to a lesser degree. If people are led to believe that nothing they do will make a difference, they simply won't try. If they don't try, it just makes it easier for their rights to be stripped, even if those rights are protected by law.

Every time we allow someone to step on us, we contribute to the larger issue. In fact, there's a butterfly effect. I'll use my own example to illustrate what I mean. Let's say I hadn't fought my landlord on this, and they got my money to pay for their renovations. There's no way they would have stopped with me. They would have found it a very easy way to renovate the whole building, and would be encouraged to try it with everyone, knowing that it was unlikely anyone would try to stop them. Every single person in this building (about 30 apartments) would most likely have been taught that they're just going to be screwed over for the rest of their lives. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but I don't think it's too far off the mark. The people who live here are mostly uneducated, and they're all poor. Nobody would live in this building if they were bringing in a decent income. In my case my daughter makes minimum wage, and I'm on disability. Even still, we're moving on to better things. I've never lived in a place this disgusting in my life, and I don't intend to stick around.

Back to my point, however. So, you have a building with 30 families, all being taught that they have no power and no rights, because none of them here will likely have read the Residential Tenancies Act. In fact, most tenants never read even excerpts from it. I'm an exception, apparently. I like to learn new things, and I like to know what my rights are. My landlord is far from unique when it comes to bending and breaking the law. I don't think I've ever come across a landlord that wasn't breaking the law in some fashion or other. Most of them violate entry laws, most violate anti-smoking legislation, most don't pay interest on deposits, and most do not maintain their buildings mechanically or health-wise in accordance with the law. When tenants don't fight back against them, they simply continue doing business in the way that brings them as much profit as possible.

Our homes are the places where we spend most of our lives, usually. At the very least we usually sleep in them. To have our rights taken from us in our own homes is very meaningful. This mentality invades all other parts of our lives. When you stop to think about the fact that most employers also violate the rights of their employees, there are very few ways in which citizens are not being stepped on. It becomes a constant, daily thing. Again, so few actually read about employment legislation, so they don't even know that their employers are supposed to provide them with a copy of the Employment Standards Act in order to educate them on their rights. When employees don't know that, they don't ask. They don't know where to go to get the information, because they aren't researchers by nature.

Even thinking about the ways we're always being taken advantage of is exhausting. There are just so many battles to be fought. I haven't worked for anyone other than myself for a long time, and even then I worked in payroll and human resources, so I was the one making sure the employees were not having their rights stripped. My employers weren't thrilled, but I didn't care. I wasn't going to be a party to it. These were people that were paying themselves a million-dollar bonus at Christmas, but they didn't want to pay two hours of overtime to an employee. This attitude is typical, and I've never worked for an employer who wasn't like that. I'm sure there are some nice employers and landlords out there, but like most people I haven't been lucky enough to run into them. In many cases landlords and employers don't even know they're doing anything wrong, but it's their legal obligation to know these things, so I feel no sympathy for their plight. If you're going to hire people, or rent property to people, then do your due diligence.

At work and at home we're getting screwed over constantly, and then there are all the other things that are coming down on us. Our lands are being stripped and destroyed, the environment is becoming toxic, and in twenty years there's a good chance we're not even going to have breathable air unless something is done immediately. There will be continuous changes to what we can do in our leisure time, simply because there will be places we'll no longer be able to go. People are discriminated against for their gender, race (theirs or their spouse's), religion, and sexual orientation.

This is why every single one of us has to stop in their tracks and say, "Enough already!" We have to stop this on a daily basis. We have to fight against it. We have to share information with one another about what can be done. We stand to lose every one of our rights without a single battle being fought, simply because we don't want to deal with confrontation. I'm well aware that confrontation sucks. I absolutely hate confrontations. I hate drama and fighting. I don't watch reality TV, and that's one of the biggest reasons. I don't mind sports like UFC and boxing, because there are rules and they're not based on personal issues. It's about technique and skill in the ring.

When it comes to fighting 'city hall' as they say, it's different. The results matter. They have an impact on your life, so it's scary to fight against someone. I guarantee, however, that if you don't fight, the results will be far worse than if you do. If I hadn't shown up in court the other day, they would have ruled that I owed the money, and I would have been charged for the filing fee as well. I would have been stuck owing almost $3,000 for something that wasn't even my debt. Not showing up for a fight is basically considered tacit consent. Courts will almost always rule against the party that isn't there. You simply must refute the claims of those that would take advantage of you. If you don't, your neighbour is going to be the next one footing the bill.

If it's your boss taking advantage of you, your co-workers are likely getting the same treatment. I actually had a friend go to work for a company that had screwed me over in the past, and they did even worse to her. I helped her fight it, and she won, but she would likely have never been put in that position if I'd fought them when I had the chance years earlier. An employer that's forcibly reminded by the courts that what they're doing is illegal, will think twice about doing it again. An employer that is never challenged will keep doing the same things, and will likely get progressively worse. In some cases they never learn, but as long as people keep fighting, then there's a good chance the company will end up getting shut down and the employees will be awarded what they're owed.

It's always worse in lean times when there are few jobs and few places to live. People are afraid of losing their jobs and apartments, because they know it's going to be tough to find another one. That fear is what keeps us all down. We fight when we know we've got the upper hand, or we fight when we know things can't get any worse. The common person rarely has the upper hand, though, and if we're in a position where we know things can't get worse, that's a terrible place to be. It's easier to give up then.

I'm of two minds when it comes to unions. I know they've served a purpose, but I also know the unions aren't exactly the benevolent organizations they pretend to be. In some cases they simply clog up the works and take hard-earned money from their members for doing absolutely nothing. Their existence, however, is a benefit in that they're a constant threat to the employer. I'm well aware that it was union efforts that organized the workers and they were responsible for getting us our shorter work weeks (and many other benefits), so we certainly need to show our gratitude there. However, I've also worked for a company where I have been harmed by their presence. It's a sort of catch-22. All in all, though, I do think they're needed, if for no other reason than the silent threat factor. Any company that has a union in place is well aware that they're being constantly and closely monitored, and not just by a single individual. They aren't faced with only one employee that knows their rights, but every employee that has an ironclad contract. That can make a big difference with a crappy employer.

Organized protest is always what leads any social change. A single person can be responsible for a great deal, and usually that's because they've managed to gather together a group of like-minded individuals. The shouts of a group become loud enough that the governing bodies can't tune them out. The public starts hearing their voices, and they often add their own then. Social change happens because the majority of people want it, and they force the legislators to acknowledge that it's what the public wants. Government is supposed to work for the people, but it doesn't unless the people force it to. Government simply goes on doing whatever it's doing, often being bought and paid for by big business, unless the citizens put their collective feet down.

The other part of understanding social change, is that we have to realize it starts small, and it starts locally. If we want change, we start with our neighbourhood, because it's really not that hard to get a few hundred people together. Then we can move on to our city. Once we have our cities back, we can deal with state or provincial government. After all, if every major city has changed, the province or state no longer has a choice, really. Once each state or province has changed, that changes the whole country. It's not that hard to remove the corrupt government officials if we band together and decide we don't want them. We hired them, and we can fire them.

All of this begins with showing up. Until we show up for the fight, we will be walked on. Once we show up, we can plead our case. Enough people together, fighting for the same rights, and you've got big change. It may not be changes to the law, because the laws might already be on the books. They just have to be enforced, and if you don't fight for your own rights, then who do you think is supposed to do it for you?