By Brad Walchuk, CUPE 1281
With Labour Day approaching on Monday, it will sadly be close to 51 weeks before many folks to care about labour again. Labour Day presents an important time to reflect upon the important struggles and victories that the labour movement has helped to bring about in the past, but it is also an equally important time, and perhaps even a more important time, to focus on the important role that the labour movement plays in the present day, as well as the role that it will continue to play in the future.
In many ways, I am a history buff, particularly when it comes to labour history. But I also recognize that for many people, the here and now is all that matters, and it is why the Labour Day message of unions is often to problematic. A large part of organized labour’s Labour Day message focuses on past victories, and the rise of easy-to-share internet memes has contributed to the problem. Certainly over the past few weeks (and quite likely over the course of the year), many of us will have seen a black and white meme of a child worker in a factory stating something to the effect of “the good old days before unions came along.” It is also quite likely we`ve seen a meme stating “Unions: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.” In fact, this seems to have become the unofficial slogan of the labour movement, and that is a huge problem.
I’m certainly not advocating that labour forget its many (and important) victories of the past. In fact, we can’t forget about them, but we also can’t allow ourselves fetishize them and allow them to become the focal point of our messaging at the expense of focusing on issues of contemporary relevance to workers, such as pay equity, a living wage, access to paid domestic violence leave and paid personal days, and improvements to workers’ health and safety. For me, labour’s obsession with winning the weekend (and the 40-hour work week, and ending child labour, etc.) would be a lot like going on a date with someone only to have them talk about the great things they did in the past, and largely overlooking what they’re doing now. That’s not to suggest that this person isn’t doing great things now (and in labour’s case, we certainly are), but it is to suggest that people – and unions – need to start talking less about the past and more about what they are doing in the present (and their plans for the future).
One of my biggest worries about this focus on labour’s past victories is that it plays right into the hands of labour’s critics. There are two predominant streams of criticism directed toward unions. One is more pointed and overtly anti-union: the suggestion that unions and selfish, useless, inefficient and hamper economic growth, and are a bad thing in-and-of themselves. In an era of high unemployment, wage stagnation, and a growing inequality of wealth distribution between rich and poor, I find this argument is less effective for anti-union folks. An anti-union argument that is certainly popular, especially in the current economic climate, is not that unions are a bad thing in-and-of themselves, but rather, that unions played an important role in the past and provided key victories for workers (ie/ the weekend), but that they are no longer needed since basic labour rights are already enshrined in law. This line of argument is also flawed but carries a certain weight with it.
This past year in particular provides labour a chance to modernize its discourse and reflect on its contemporary relevance and struggle. In particular, proposed improvements to the Employment Standards Act in Ontario stands out. This was a multi-faceted, long-fought, and on-the-ground battle that appears to have produced impressive results (Bill 148 has not yet been passed into law and remains hotly contested, thought it appears many pro-labour reforms will pass). It also represents an important struggle that both organized labour in an official capacity, and perhaps even more importantly, rank-and-file workers – both unionized and non-unionized – have successfully waged.
The results, to say the least, were impressive. In addition to the $15/hr minimum wage, mobilization and constant pressure from workers also led to the government to introduce legislation that would mandate equal pay for part-time workers who are doing the same job as a full-time workers, provide an additional week of paid vacation to workers after five years with the same employer, require employers to pay a worker three hours of wages if they cancel a shift with less than 48 hours notice, and provide all workers 10 personal emergency leave days a year (and a minimum of two of those days must be paid). Of course, more is needed (including card-based union certification and ending minimum wage exemptions among others), but these results are certainly impressive and working-class activists need to be commended, and need to take their due credit.
This contemporary approach to Labour Day and the role that union’s play in the day-to-day lives of the working class here and now – and not just in the past – appears to be a part of CUPE Ontario’s 2017 Labour Day campaign. President Fred Hahn’s Labour Day Message concludes by saying Labour Day is “the day to celebrate out growing strength, our growing power, the potential we all have in working together to make our world a better place.” In fact, the union’s 2017 Labour Day Slogan and logo of ‘Be Bold, Be Brave, Demand More’ suggests that they are unwilling to focus solely on past victories, and instead highlight recent struggles and victories, and ongoing campaigns.
So when you’re at Labour Day 2017, be sure to reflect on labour’s important history and the many advances that organized labour has made for the working-class, but don’t forget about the current campaign to Make it Fair and the realization of a $15/hr minimum wage, pay equity, paid personal days, and expanded access to unionization. And hopefully that’s a message that unions will remember over the upcoming year.