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Labour Day: we can have the kind of Canada we want


The last long weekend of summer is upon us. 

On Monday, Canadians from coast to coast will enjoy Labour Day, a last dash of sun (we hope) before the days quickly shorten and the leaves begin to transform. 

Labour Day, of course, is much more than a statutory holiday; welcome time off at the turn of the season. It’s a day set aside to acknowledge the triumphs of worker’s rights and commemorate what has been achieved through the collective efforts of many generations of Canadians. 

Countless celebratory events are scheduled for this weekend across the country. News has just come in of a tentative merger between the Telecommunications Workers Union and the United Steelworkers and the official launch of what will become Canada’s largest private sector union, Unifor, gets underway in Toronto today.

There is good reason to celebrate. 

The social policies we hold dear – like safe work environments, pensions, employment insurance, maternity leave, minimum wage, and, well, weekends were in large part the result of the collective efforts of millions of people who joined together – through trade unions – to dream of something better.

In Canada, the progressive legacy of those struggles is a more equal and democratic country; a national community that has agreed to look out for one another and not leave those less fortunate behind. 

We must not take these gains for granted. 

Labour, the economic historian Karl Polanyi famously observed, is a “fictitious commodity.” Human beings cannot be treated like mere goods in a “free” market. Human gain must be considered above and beyond mere monetary gain. It’s a poignant fact of which we must always remind ourselves.

Polanyi understood that social forces mobilize to push back against the scourge of unbridled market forces when they threaten human dignity, as indeed they did during the industrial revolution. But history also taught him that the success of that push back was neither easy nor assured. It is often a struggle.

Many people around the world, of course, still do not enjoy what we take for granted here in Canada. In fact, treacherous working conditions and meager wages remain the status quo in the production of many of the cheap goods we buy.

Labour Day should serve as a reminder to take a hard look at where our responsibility lies in those complicated economic relationships. But it is also an opportunity to take a harder look at the struggles that continue to play out within our own borders. 

Over the past few decades, the political right has worked feverishly to obscure the contribution that unions have, and continue to make, to Canada’s shared prosperity. Supported by a well-heeled chorus of right wing think-tanks, they have effectively narrowed our conception of what the Canadian community can be.

The full frontal assault on unions and working people continues unabated today. Bills C-377 and C-525, Conservative legislation which will be debated in the House of Commons this fall, promise to further erode collective bargaining rights and punitively restrict the ability of unions to engage in political activities.

This deliberate attempt to further weaken unions is a compelling part of the story in the rise of precarious, low-wage work, a significant factor behind the stagnation of middle-class wages and the ballooning income share of the top 1% of income earners. 

As the Broadbent Institute argued in our recent report, Union Communities Healthy Communities (PDF), the “union advantage”, bolstering economic equality for all workers, does not come at the price of poorer economic performance. In places where unionization is high, local economies – and hence communities – are stronger.

Despite demonstrable inequality and rising job insecurity, the political right continues to undermine trade unions at every turn. More fundamentally, conservatives persist in trying to convince Canadians that we are better off as atomized individuals, as though the greatest virtue we can pursue is our own, narrow, material self interest.

There’s something profoundly impoverished with this vision of society. This Labour Day, Canadians should take a moment (over the BBQ!) to remember the great things we have achieved together – and that our ability to continue to improve our country is limited only by our imaginations.

Photo: CAW Media. Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.