Monday is Labour Day.
To many, that means the end of summer, the start of a new school year or a welcomed long weekend.
What seems to be missing is much acknowledgement of the day’s name sake — labour.
Labour Day was intended to mark the achievements of organized workers in securing rights for employees.
In Canada, the day is usually traced back to the April 15, 1872, when the Toronto Trades Assembly organized Canada’s first major demonstration for workers’ rights. Demonstrators were demanding the release of 24 leaders of the Toronto Typographical Union who were imprisoned for striking to campaign for a nine-hour working day. Trade unions were still illegal and striking was seen as a criminal conspiracy to disrupt trade.
There was enormous public support for the parade and a few months later in July a similar parade was organized in Ottawa. The parade passed the house of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John Macdonald. Later in the day, he appeared before the gathering and promised to repeal all Canadian laws against trade unions. A year later, the Canadian Labour Congress was founded.
Today, Canadians have many rights that would have been unheard of 141 years ago, but the struggle continues. In fact, right now, Richmond is seeing a myriad of job action including the Ikea workers’ lockout, the Sheraton Airport Hotel workers one-day strike, and most recently, YVR workers issue of strike notice.
The labour movement has had ups and downs over the decades. The evolution, and in some cases, devolution of workers’ rights has much to do with global economic forces as well as fundamental shifts in industry, according to Coun. Harold Steves.
“After going through a recession, people who had their wages held down are looking to regain what they lost,” said Steves referring to the recent spell of action in Richmond. “The cost of living has gone up, but their wages haven’t.”
Low wages currently plague the service industry — retail, restaurants, accommodation — which is one of the main industries in Richmond today, Steves added.
But the movement into the service sector extends beyond Richmond’s natural boundaries, travelling across the region and province.
“B.C. used to be big in manufacturing and forestry,” said Iglika Ivanova, economist and public interest researcher at Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) B.C. “But now it’s accommodation, retail and food that people are gravitating towards. These are traditionally lower paying jobs.
“The higher paying industries used to hire more people, but now that’s not the case.”
The shift has been the product of an increasingly globalized economy, according to Jim Sinclair, president of the BC Federation of Labour.
The province in particular, but the country as a whole, is no longer a manufacturing country. Processes are outsourced to other countries where the cost of labour is less, said Sinclair.
The result is the emerging service sector, which now needs to be taken seriously as a viable career option.
“Ikea is a great example of the challenge of the labour movement,” he said. “It’s an example of a company that raised $4 billion last year trying to force workers to roll back their wages and benefits and hours, turning them into low-paying and part-time work. The union is standing strong and trying to protect their jobs and the disappearing middle class.”
From a businessperson’s perspective, it’s generally been argued that hiring people at lower wages, and less regulation of employee rights, allows the company to be more flexible and costs less. Therefore, it stimulates the economy and creates more jobs.
It’s a viewpoint both Sinclair and Ivanova insist isn’t true.
The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) — an international body of 34 countries promoting progress and world trade — recently confirmed there to be no relation between labour market performance and employment protection legislation.
In fact, in its recent findings, out of 34 countries, Canada ranked near the bottom at 32 for employment protection legislation (ahead of New Zealand and the United States).
“The economy requires people to have consumer power,” said Sinclair. “If everyone works at $10/hr, only a few would keep getting richer, but there’d be no money for small businesses, for community, for taxes, these are things that make a civilization. Nobody can buy anything for $10/hr, it phases out the middle class.”
“In general, we’re seeing that wages have been stalling, which contributes to this race to the bottom,” said Ivanova.
Further, a shift in industry, coupled with more self-employed workers or people working part-time, has meant a decline of the union, one of the trademarks of the early labour movement.
“Having an organization like a union causes a trickle-down affect, leading to better wages and conditions for all workers,” said Sinclair. “Many things people enjoy today like CPP, health care, minimum wage, came out of unions.”
The percentage of union workers in the province has declined from 45 per cent at its peak about 30 years ago, to 31 per cent today. With the election of the B.C. Liberals in 2002, changes were made to the process of forming a union, according to Ivanova. On top of requiring 50 per cent of the workers’ signatures, the workers now have to wait a month, culminating in a vote.
“During this month, the employers can campaign, encouraging workers not to vote for a union, even threatening the quality of their jobs,” she said.
And without a body protecting the workers, employment standards also declines, particularly in lower-paying positions where workers are more easily replaced.
“It makes people afraid to organize,” said Ivanova. “If people had complaints, they used to be able to call Employment Standards anonymously and have the situation checked out. Now they have to deal with the matter personally. When this changed, complaints fell over 50 per cent. The government thought employers were being more compliant, but that obviously wasn’t the case.”
She added a society continuing down the road of low wages and part time work leads to further instability and income inequality.
Existing unions should make more of an effort to communicate with workers as a whole, reaching out to the self-employed, for example, and the non-union workers.
“Unions do need more organization and to communicate better on behalf of non-union workers,” she said. “If they can set a benchmark for others, it will show other workers a credible option when fighting for their own rights. It puts upward pressure on wages for everyone.”
It’s something Steves remembers as a major achievement of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, a prominent influence on the fishing industry in the ’70s.
“The fishermen fought for the environment and made great strides, a larger issue that applied to more people than themselves,” he said. “You don’t really see that anymore here. We see most unions negotiating their labour contracts rather than campaign on wider issues.”
Recently, two of Canada’s largest unions, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP), announced they would merge to create Unifor.
The founding convention will be held this weekend in Toronto. “I think that’s a great idea,” said Ivanova. “They’ve also announced that 10 per cent of all funding will go towards (helping non-union workers organize.) That’s important.”
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