BC FORUM Labour Day Message, 2009
Labour Day is unique. It is the only statutory holiday that celebrates working people. It’s been around a long time. It’s rooted in an ancient struggle. Between the aristocracy and the common good. Between more riches for the few, and dignity for all.
For Canadian workers, and the American workers who followed our lead, April 14, 1872 was a pivotal date. Ten thousand people attended a parade in support of typographers. They were on strike against the Toronto Globe. They were tired of working 12 hours a day. They wanted a 58 hour work week.
George Brown, editor of the Globe and a prominent Liberal politician, was having none of it. He called in the police. The 24 members of the typographical union’s strike committee were arrested and thrown in jail. Under a law enacted in 1792, it was illegal to belong to a union. They were charged with criminal conspiracy in restraint of trade.
Leaders of other unions organized demonstrations on Sept. 3, in Ottawa and Toronto, to protest the arrests. The Ottawa demonstrators secured a promise from Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to repeal the anti-union law, which he did the following year. Soon all unions were demanding a 54 hour week.
The strikers paid a heavy personal price. Many lost their jobs. They had to leave Toronto. It was a bitter reward for their bravery and sacrifice, but they have a lasting legacy. They started the push for a shorter work week. They gave us the first Labour Day, celebrated every year since 1872, and officially declared a national holiday in 1894.
In later generations, many other workers have followed their lead. They sacrificed, struggled and paid a personal price to make changes that benefit ordinary people. The 40 hour week. The weekend. Public health care. Public education. Pensions. Employment insurance.
We have made so many gains that some people – apologists for the few – try to convince us the struggle is over. They say unions have outlived their usefulness.
As retired workers who have been part of the struggle, it would be comforting to think we can now rest easy. That the difference of opinion about whether the fruits of our labour should further enrich the few or secure the dignity of all has been resolved.
You need only to read the headlines to see it isn’t so.
The titles have changed. There are no more feudal lords and barons – although some corporate titans like Conrad Black still aspire to those aristocratic trappings as confirmation they are better than the rest of us. You will never hear them say, “What we desire for ourselves, we wish for all.”
During the last year, the greed of a few – aided by governments that tore up regulations to protect the public interest – has triggered a world-wide economic recession.
While they remain secure in their mansions, working people and retired workers are paying the price. Years of savings lost to the financial turmoil. Retirement plans destroyed. Jobs lost. Homes or home equity lost.
Workers who have paid into Employment Insurance, creating a huge surplus, are finding they don’t qualify for benefits.
Workers who have paid into company pension plans, hoping for a secure retirement, are discovering that their contributions are not protected when a company goes bankrupt.
The Canada Pension Plan – a good idea and a good start – is wholly inadequate to provide a decent standard of living for the 60 percent of workers who have no employer pension.
And in times like these, we still see governments acting for the few at the expense of the rest of us. Shifting $1.9 billion in taxes away from corporations and onto the shoulders of ordinary people through a harmonized sales tax. Freezing the wages of minimum wage workers for 8 years while giving the highest paid government mandarins huge increases. Relentlessly cutting public services that retired workers and our families depend on.
Labour Day celebrates the struggle for social justice.
It is far from over.
There is much to do, many injustices to tackle for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren.
For the workers who marched in Toronto 137 years ago, the ultimate goal was dignity for all.
Their call resonates across the generations.
It’s up to us, together, to heed their call and continue the march.