Labour Day 2012 - ReflectionsSaturday, September 01, 2012 by: Mac Headrick
I am personally anticipating a quiet, relaxing Labour Day. Last year at this time Linda and l celebrated the wedding of our favourite daughter, Kaytee. I always tell Kaytee she is our favourite. Apparently this “compliment” doesn’t have the same significance due to the fact that Kaytee is our only daughter. Besides the wedding, a year ago was the last opportunity to clean up the two new schools that came online for the Algoma District School Board. I put in a few hours during the remainder of the weekend to help out.
The origins of Labour Day in Canada can be traced back to the Toronto Printers Union in 1872. The key demand of this group to their employer, The Globe and Mail, was that their workweek be reduced to 58 hours. This objective was described by the employer as “foolish, absurd, and unreasonable”. Union activity was illegal in Canada at this time. A lot of the workers lost their jobs and many were imprisoned. Eventually the Prime Minister of Canada, at the time John A McDonald, recognized political opportunity and in June of that year helped pass a Trade Union Act.
Labour Day means many different things to different people. In Sault Ste Marie it appears to me this weekend is travel time for many parents hauling their children and “stuff” to universities and colleges in southern Ontario. I imagine many people will head to camp to celebrate the last “unofficial” weekend of summer. The average temperature next week is predicted to be in the mid 20 degree Celsius. I suppose an argument could be made it isn’t fall yet. No matter how warm it is in September the leaves are changing colour, children are back in school, the local high school football season kicks off this Friday. NFL Football begins regular play this week. Why fight it - summer is over.
Labour Day originally began as a celebration in recognition of the labour movement. It has taken me four paragraphs to get to the inspiration of this column. Throughout my working career as a union member (1974-82 Algoma Steel) and a supervisor (Sault College 1983-90 and Algoma District School Board 1990- February 2013) l have certainly benefitted by the gains made by the Labour movement. As the above brief work history indicates for the last 31 years l have occupied a non-union position yet l credit my wages and benefits to the union gains. My point is for all the criticisms of unions (a lot of it justified in my opinion) the fact is Canadian workers, union and non-union, have all benefitted financially from the labour movement.
One of the significant problems facing unions in Canada today is the fact they succeeded politically and economically. Now this statement may appear to be contradictory. In Canada today we have many government institutions that look after workers. To name a few, Human Rights Commission, Occupational Health and Safety Board, Workers Compensation, the Ministry of Labour etc, etc. Originally unions were the only source of protection for workers. How labour motivated do you think workers are going to be when they earn fifty to over $100 thousand dollars a year with excellent benefit packages. Again, this is only a personal opinion but apathy from its own members is a major problem facing unions.
If l were to ask your opinion about the political leanings of unions in Canada you would probably indicate the NDP or until recently, the Liberals. This may have been true in the past but not now. Think about it, unions are basically very conservative. Their strength in the past was based on representing their particular group. Terms like “sister” and “brother”, “seniority” take precedence over individuality, personal effort and accomplishment etc. The above is not a criticism on my part. Unions did what they had to do to survive. The problem for unions is their focus has always been representing their particular groups. They have put little effort into integrating their goals into the rest of society. An example is the ongoing battle between public sector unions and the government of Ontario. Question… do you think public opinion stands in regards to any dispute between the government (federal or provincial) and public sector unions?
Technology has really done a number on the labour movement. I worked in Algoma Steel until 1982. I remember going to work with over 12,000 other employees. Today Essar Steel produces significantly more steel than pre1982 with approximately 75% less employees. Almost every office function now can be performed from across the world. We all want to pay less for goods and services.
I realize a lot of union members have recently become upset at Premiere McGuinty. Fair enough, l recommend they spend sometime reading the “White Paper” by Conservative leader Tim Hudak. Mr. Hudak is very clear on his political objectives. He would like to see Ontario become more competitive. To accomplish this Mr. Hudak would advocate for a non-union work force with lower wages and benefits. Perhaps the Canadian electorate will support this view in the future.
Something interesting occurred this week relative to the labour movement and the economy. The significance of these events was that the roles of unions in the economy was not under attack. For once in a long time the contribution to Canada’s economic recovery by corporate Canada was being criticized. The authors of the criticism were no less than the very politically conservative Mark Carney (Bank of Canada Governor) and Jim Flaherty (Conservative Finance minister). Now l do not know how the above helps the labour movement but it does indicate that economic recovery isn’t just based on union demands. Eventually politicians are going to examine the success, or lack of, relative to corporate tax cuts.
Government debt and the necessity to deal with it will dominate the political landscape in Canada for the foreseeable future. This will affect any labour group that represents government employees. I may be wrong but l cannot see how any political party whether on the left or right “wing” can avoid dealing with this situation. My point is l do not know where the labour movement can turn too politically. In the past l would have suggested the NDP. Political support from a political party means nothing if the party in question isn’t in power. The NDP made significant gains in the last federal election. To move forward the NDP will have to prove it can represent all Canadians. This means the NDP has to be very careful in its relationship with the labour movement.
I had stated last week that there are some positives in the celebration of Labour Day. We are far better off presently as a society as a result of past efforts of the labour movement. It is true that government debt has to be addressed. At the same time politicians need a healthy economy to remain in power. I have always associated the labour movement with a successful middle class. Perhaps while controlling debt our elected representatives may consider tax cuts to individuals over corporations. More money in an individuals pocket can lead to increase of spending for goods and services etc. The political pendulum always swings back.
As l see there is not a lot to celebrate this Labour Day for the labour movement. This doesn’t mean we as individuals cannot take the time to enjoy time with friends and family. The presence malaise in the labour movement will pass.
Happy Labour Day