Celebrating Labour Day Every Day

by Rob Cleveland on September 3, 2013

How did you spend your Labour Day? Many of us across this great and diverse nation enjoyed the weekend with family and friends at backyard barbecues, camp sites, small-town parades, below brilliant firework displays, or catching a CFL game.

Labour Day has been celebrated by Canadian workers since the 1880s, officially recognized as the first Monday of September in 1894 by Prime Minister John Thompson. The day has been mired in controversy as much as it has been celebrated at community parades. It started in 1872 with a protest for a shorter work week—a protest that ended in many landing in jail and losing their jobs.

That was then, but what about now?

In 2013, many of us revel in the reality that a typical workweek is recognized as eight hours per day and forty hours in a week. Any hours worked beyond that is usually paid at overtime rates. In addition to these modern-day workweeks, many workers now enjoy benefit packages that cover trips to the local pharmacy or dentist, retirement packages, and more.

It is undeniable that thousands of Canadians still work in less than ideal conditions. These people are often very hard-working, dedicated employees. Yet, their employers leave something to be desired—paying little to no overtime, rarely referring to labour standards, and cultivating cultures in which workers have no immunity from violence or abuse. These unscrupulous employers know they hold the power over a marginalized workforce. In most situations, it is a race to the bottom to provide us with the cheapest goods and services we desire. In this realm, homage is rarely paid to the respect and dignity deserved by every worker.

These workers, like tens of millions of workers around the world, have limited access to collective representation. But they’re the ones that most desperately need it.

Today, unionism is under direct threat in North America. Some states within the US have passed right-to-work legislation, which is an offensive way of masquerading business-friendly diatribes as calls to “free” unionized employees from the chains of their unions. It is nothing more than union-busting legislation that threatens to set back the labour movement over a hundred years.

In recent times, Canada has witnessed similar ideas propagated by groups like Ontario’s Tim Hudak and the Progressive Conservative Party. Such musings, for example, are contained in his party’s little-read white paper, an antiquated and baseless call for the end—or severe reduction—of unionism.

Some people quip that unions served their purpose to the labour movement throughout the twentieth century, but that in 2013, they are more or less irrelevant. Everything that was possible to achieve on behalf of the worker has been obtained. In other words, there is nothing left for unions to do.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Unions are more relevant today than ever before. Not only do unions feed progress on behalf of their membership, but non-union employees migrating between these sectors become more knowledgeable and better educated about their rights. Wage rates and benefit packages continue to increase on the coattails of unionisms’ achievements as unions uphold both their collective agreements and the provincial and federal legislation pertaining to Canadian workers’ rights.

Employment standards, acts, and regulations across Canada, as well as the thousands of collective bargaining agreements representing millions of Canadians, are nothing more than ink on paper unless enforced. Unions, their representatives, and stewards, remain the stalwart guardians of those words, interpreting and applying laws, regulations, and articles as the situation demands, to the betterment of all workers.

Some argue that individual workers are far more capable of cutting their own deal with their employer, which will be of more benefit to that individual than any collective agreement. Such a statement holds a modicum of truth for only a slim minority. Unions, however, are continuously concerned with moving all workers forward together to improve wages, benefits, working conditions, training, and safety and fostering a strong sense of workplace community. After all, most of our work, while comprised of individual efforts, is a collective effort.

Let’s appreciate the gains that we have achieved as a collective every day, with an eye on the substantial work that remains to improve our workplaces and the communities in which we live and work. And remember those who are less fortunate by filling charities’ coffers with bounty we’ve gained through progressive unionism.


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