House Call with Carol Hughes

Labour Day marks victories we should never surrender

While the labour movement isn’t unique to Canada, it has a strong history of making our workplaces safer, more compassionate and bringing about better wages. In many parts of the world Labour Day is celebrated as May Day on the first of that month and was traditionally used by workers to campaign for better wages and conditions. The Labour Day parades and picnics we see to this day are a by-product of that history. The campaigns being celebrated brought about the five-day work week, health and safety measures and rights, along with fair wages so there is a lot to be grateful for when we mark this day.

That said, there is always more that we can strive for and with the advent of the gig-economy these issues are being played out again as employers like Uber operate in a gray zone due to their global employment models. In Canada, dealing with those challenges seems to be happening mostly on the municipal front, but it isn’t difficult to see how those jurisdictions aren’t as prepared as the federal government is to ensure these employers operate within the scope of Canadian rules and regulations. This may well be the next big battleground, but as more workplaces go without the protection that unions can offer, there is much to regain in all sectors to ensure our proud history isn’t lost to anti-union interests.

Pensions remain one of the biggest challenges for too many Canadian workers and despite years of pressure from New Democrat MPs, consecutive governments have refused to move pension plans to the front of the line when companies flounder. Sears employees felt this sting when the company failed after a billionaire hedge fund manager drove it into debt and liquidated assets leaving their pension plan underfunded, resulting in employees being denied pension funds they already earned. In short, they were ripped off. The reality is that too many Canadians are facing retirement without pension security and when the government allows companies to whittle away formerly strong plans, the burden of caring for those displaced falls on us collectively. It makes little sense that any government isn’t looking at securing more pension plans, but that has been the case for decades.

Every year the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) come up with a theme for Labour Day. This year it is, “A Fair Canada for Everyone.” They want to highlight labour rights and show how those help everyone. They speak to combating prejudices in the workplace and the way that the far right is disrupting politics by fostering sentiments such as anti-immigration which can lead workers to vote for politicians who also would attack labour rights and roll back many of the protections in our workplaces that we consider essential.

This year, Labour Day comes shortly after celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike. That event is seen as a tipping point in the struggle for labour rights and the acceptance of the union movement in Canada. One hundred years later, those hard-fought rights are endangered due to the rise of extremist politics that fosters votes with dog-whistle politics without explaining that they are also opposed to many of the measures that unions have fought so hard for. That is what makes the CLC’s message important and it is something to keep in mind as you enjoy the last holiday weekend of the summer. Happy and safe Labour Day weekend to all!