Labour is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labour, and could never have existed if labour had not first existed. Labour is the superior of capital, and deserves the much higher consideration. — Abraham Lincoln
While Labour Day in Canada is widely regarded as a late summer opportunity to visit the cottage or enjoy one last long weekend before school starts, labour groups take the opportunity to remind society of the importance of workers and the contributions they provide to the economy, as well as health and safety standards in the workplace.
Labour Day has been celebrated on the first Monday in September in Canada since the 1880s, originally established for workers to campaign for improved pay and working conditions.
The origins of the day can be traced back to a parade in Toronto in 1872 when the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike in support of a nine-hour work day. The Toronto Trade Assembly called its 27 unions to join the parade in support, and the parade became an annual event.
Today, union councils across the country carry on the tradition, mostly in the form of picnics, festivals and fireworks, but the opportunity to remind B.C. workers how unions have played an important role in the workplace remains.
Ellen Oxman, president of the Nanaimo, Duncan and District Labour Council, said gaining respect for workers continues to be a challenge in Canadian workplaces.
“Our goal is to maintain respect for workers and the contributions of workers in Canadian society, certainly in B.C. and in the Nanaimo area,” said Oxman. “Sometimes I think that message is lost. Labour particularly has been such a huge positive influence in so many ways on the things that we enjoy today as a society. At times that is overlooked. Labour Day gives us the opportunity to celebrate the contributions of labour.”
The most notable workplace improvement that unions fought for was the modern eight-hour work day, so workers could balance their lives with eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation and eight hours of sleep daily. Workplace safety and health is also championed by unions.
Leonard Krog, Nanaimo NDP MLA, said while unions have achieved a lot over the past decades, current economic difficulties are stressing workers and deteriorating social equities.
He said workers will celebrate the defeat of the harmonized sales tax in B.C. this Labour Day, but will be reminded of bigger challenges that lay ahead.
“With unemployment in Nanaimo at around 14 per cent, this is a very tough time locally,” said Krog. “And in the ‘Big P’ political picture, we are a far less equal society than we were 20 or 30 years ago and part of that is the reduction of union jobs in the private sector. We see many workers heading into retirement now without private pensions.
“We are a less egalitarian society and in my view that is a bad thing. It leads to all sorts of social problems, it is bad for health, we know that wealth is a key determinant of health, and so the rights that unions have won for workers build a better society.”
Krog pointed to social equity in the post-war era, when families were comfortable surviving on one income in a household. Today, many families are struggling paycheque to paycheque on two incomes, with little prospect of a decent pension, while the rich get richer, he said.
He added that labour legislation is not as favourable as it used to be.
“We’ve got billionaires saying ‘tax us, please’,” he said. “What does it tell you about the state of the world when the rich are the ones who have to tell governments that they aren’t being taxed enough to help the poor? It’s about building a society based on social and economic justice.”
Oxman pointed to the recent layoff announcement of 800 B.C. Hydro employees as one of the challenges workers face in an era of economic uncertainty. With many provincial and federal unions currently at or scheduled to be at the bargaining table, job security for many workers has the potential to be eroded in the near future.
“Somethign like [the B.C. Hydro layoffs] is a huge hit to our economy as a whole and it will at some point hurt all of us. Not just those directly affected,” she said. “This is not a good time for many labourers working for employers. There will be a lot of difficult bargaining coming up in the next year or two for a lot of the groups represented by our labour council. We’ve just gone through a strike with the postal workers and supported them through their issues which are really valid and important issues for every one. We all need to worry about pensions and security, and health and safety that unions put in a lot of work for. If we didn’t do that who would?”
The Nanaimo, Duncan and District Labour Council hosts its 21st annual Labour Day Picnic at Transfer Beach in Ladysmith Monday (Sept. 5) from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. as a way to celebrate the gains unions have made and to advise workers on the challenges that lay ahead.
Krog, who will emcee the event, said it’s about rallying people “to build a better society.”
“To tie it in with the recent and sad death of Jack Layton, that’s what he was essentially saying, we can do better and we should be optimistic and if you don’t believe in that, what can you believe in, what should you believe in?” said Krog. “It’s a tough time to be in Nanaimo and it’s a very good time to question the inequality in our society and for people to reaffirm of having workers paid decent wages.”