Labour Day - Workers' Activism Can Deliver the Canada We Deserve

September 3, 2010, 10:00 AM EST


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By CAW President Ken Lewenza

This Labour Day weekend marks the CAW's official 25th anniversary since its formation. An anniversary that is marked by mixed emotions.

The birth of our independent union in 1985 was an important moment for the labour movement. CAW members electing to break away from their U.S.-based international union was like rowing against the tide of greater continental integration. We created a space that fostered a new voice for the working class in Canada; fashioning a set of new demands, new ideals and a new vision for Canadian society.

Our successes since then have built on the significant achievements of the labour movement from years past, including the 40 hour work week, universal health care, unemployment insurance, maternity leave and many others. The outcomes, brought about through labour's struggle, benefitted all Canadians, whether a union member or not. This fills me with a great sense of pride at the labour movement's accomplishments.

Today, fewer Canadians call themselves union members, yet the need for unions has never been greater. With a shrinking critical mass, we risk losing many of the gains working people made in the post-war years.

It's no coincidence that high labour standards and strong public services, including stringent health and safety legislation, hours of work, social security benefits, and even a living wage, go hand-in-hand with high rates of union density. We need only look to our neighbours south of the border to appreciate this crucial fact. In the U.S. today, union density has dropped to 12.3 per cent on average, pulled down by the 22 so-called 'Right to Work' states where governments are permitted by law to prohibit union membership as a condition of employment.
 
According to U.S. Department of Labor's own statistics, 'Right to Work' states have dramatically higher workplace fatalities (51 per cent higher, in fact, than states that allow free collective bargaining and unionized workplaces), lower wages (on average workers $5,333 less a year than non-Right to Work states) and do not benefit from the seniority/ long service clauses of a collective agreement.

In Canada, the situation is not so dire, but it is far from ideal. Here union density hovers just below 30 per cent and has been in a steady decline from its peak of nearly 40 per cent in the mid 1980s. If this decline in union density continues, we risk the gradual unraveling of previous gains as governments and employers grow confident that the check and balance system enforced by high unionization is starting to show signs of fraying.

Unions are the de facto voice of working people. As numbers shrink, this influence will also wane. Right-wing pundits may rejoice to this news, but Canadians ought to worry - especially as the concerted attack against workers' wages and benefits remain front and centre in this period of economic calamity.

Barely recovered from the recession, the labour movement is busy warding off attacks on public services and public sector workers by government and private corporations. In Ontario for example, the provincial government has elected to freeze the wages of non-unionized workers and is attempting to curtail the collective bargaining rights of tens of thousands more unionized workers, in the name of protecting public services. All the while dolling out corporate tax cuts, a move not supported by a large majority of Ontarians, according to recent polling.

Hundreds of thousands of Canadians are still reeling from the recent recession and although signs of recovery exist in the markets, these cannot be easily seen in our communities. The labour movement is united in saying that curtailing public services is not a valid response to the deficit and hitting up the public sector to pay down the government deficit will not be accepted, especially while pandering to corporations.

This attack on the public service follows a prolonged period of severe hacks and slashes to workers in the private sector. In manufacturing, we have not even come close to replacing the 550,000 jobs lost since 2002. In metals and mining, multi-national corporations are scooping up our natural resources, reneging on their job commitments, and leaving workers and their communities high and dry.

Many of those who have been laid off or terminated have still been left without their full severance entitlement. And for those who have managed to find work, many are forced to take jobs that are inadequate and increasingly precarious.

Talking with workers about their day-to-day experiences can be gut-wrenching. And it gives way to yet another emotion: anger. This is not the Canada I, and other CAW members, had envisioned 25 years ago. Ours has always been a country of compassion, diversity, leadership and vision. Today, these principles have been undercut by greed, short-sightedness and self-interest, by our governments and our employers.

But anger can only take our movement so far, until it is matched with action. The activism of workers to fight for and build a world they can be proud of, has been a constant in our union's history - and in the history of workers' movement in Canada and around the world. It's this activism that's needed now, more than ever.

I'm confident in the power of solidarity and collective action. Even in this period of social and economic despair, our movement has endured. We may have fewer members, but I believe that a growing number of working Canadians identify with our struggle and support our ideals. 

And together, we can fight on behalf of all Canadians, for the Canada we want and the Canada we deserve.   

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