Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Labour Day - a Canadian heritage moment - 2009 Rerun

I was out of the country during September but had intended to run this article from last year about labor day.  Since my return to blogging, other stories have taken attention but I think it is worth bringing this back to the top.  The other day I came across a BC government document that was congratulating itself because union membership has fallen below one third of the workforce during Liberal administration.  They are proud of that! Proud to remove wage and pension protection that earlier people struggled to achieve at unbelievably high cost.  Think about this as we prepare for change in Victoria. 
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From September, 2009:
I was flipping the radio dial on Labour Day and noticed that CKNW's Christy Clark featured a guest who seemed a strange choice. It was a Fraser Institute automaton, there to talk once more about our "unsustainable medical system." This is content that the silver-spooned Shaw Family, owners of Corus Radio, want you to focus on during the day set aside to honor the Canadian labour movement.

How fortunate we are to have the Fraser Institute available on this statutory holiday. Here to counsel us about social programs. Under the chairmanship of one of BC's lesser billionaires, with a who's-who board of preciously rich folks, where anyone whose wealth can be measured with fewer than nine digits in front of the decimal is patronized, the Fraser Institute steps forward to tell us we don't deserve universal medical care.

After tossing my radio over the fence, I reflected on what Labour Day means to me.

In modern times, the Canadian union movement has lost power and influence so it's easy to forget that unions enabled a broad middle class. Workers in unionized company towns in BC's 20th century resource economy set the bar for others. They showed how positive full employment with good wages enables high quality life for the entire community.

I experienced that because I was schooled in Powell River and what was then the world's largest pulp and paper mill provided good jobs and reasonable supports to almost any local family with a member who chose to work there. High school graduates - well, males anyway - were almost guaranteed summer employment if they went on to university. Countless people who became lawyers, engineers, accountants and other professionals had their higher educations enabled. Not just in Powell River either. Other single industry towns, with workers benefiting from healthy union wages, were similar.

These communities had comparatively few social problems, little poverty and excellent facilities, from schools to recreation centres. My wife and I recently attended our 45-year high school reunion in Powell River. People returned from all over to join with those still resident in the coastal town. Interestingly, over 90% of our class survive and hold happy memories of our youth. Sadly, the great employment opportunities we had are mostly gone, with the paper mill now a shadow of its former self. It offers about 15% of the jobs that it provided in 1964 and none of those are truly secure.

On Labour Day, more than most days, we should remember and reflect upon a page of history. Inspired by the nine-hour movement in England, the Toronto Printers' Union asked for a reduced workweek in 1872. Employers called the demand for six 9-hours days foolish, absurd and unreasonable. George Brown, a “Father of Confederation” and leading Liberal, was also founder of the Globe newspaper. He wrote:
It is utterly ridiculous to talk of the rapacity and despotism of the employer. The tyranny of the employed over his master would be an infinitely truer version of the case. Proprietors have suffered for years from intolerable and increasing oppression.
Unwillingness to compromise led to a strike although timid supporters of the action warned against “obstinate dogmatism”, “ruffianism”, demagoguery and revolutionary ideas. Using a law from 1792, newspaper owners launched a legal action against the union for "conspiracy" and police jailed the 24 member strike committee.

Thousands of working class citizens took to the streets. Public outrage encouraged Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to rescue the imprisoned men by passage of a Trade Union Act, which legalized and protected union activity. However, alongside the Trade Union Act, Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act which made demonstrations and picketing illegal. And while unions were now legal, employers did not have to recognize or negotiate with them.

The first mass Canadian workers' movement had a lasting legacy and it was celebrated annually in Toronto. Under pressure, the Canadian government made Labour Day a national holiday and the celebration spread across Canada and the continent.

Labour Day in the United States began in 1882. After the deaths of workers by the hands of the military and US Marshals, American leaders desired reconciliation with the Labour movement. In 1894, fearing further conflict and worrying about American alignment with international May Day workers' events, Congress passed legislation making the September Labour Day national holiday.
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2 comments:

  1. More vindication for my "Bob-Cott" of cknw prior to the provincial election last spring.

    The "straw that broke the camel's back" was when the goodship watercarrier had his pregnant pause in the Leader's "debate" during his show . . . .

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  2. I can't agree more on the uselessness of the FI. The only thing they can be relied on for is spin that attempts to make their "chosen one" look good. All that does is confirm to the rest of us that what we already think is probably right. As an example in the last couple of days a couple of the nobles from the FI were asking what was bad about what Campbell has done in BC. They made a feeble attempt to sugar coat all of what I would imagine was their wish list of policy implementation regarding taxation and of course the HST. Please somebody pull their heads up from their navels and explain to them what has happened in the last 2 terms of his reign. Now we know where the surprisingly high 9% comes from. Really all that the FI has proven is that if you have a disproportionate amount of influence, you can get Campbell to do anything$. IF they keep it up recall campaigns will run themselves.

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