UP! Fighting for economic justice for all

The first Canadian Labour Congress convention was held 58 years ago, before most of the delegates to its 27th convention this month were born. It was an all-important event in working class history, as until then Canadian labour movement unity had proven elusive.

The CLC convened in April 1956 to cement the merger of the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada(TLC) and the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL), creating a main central labour body over one million strong.

The right to collective bargaining was enshrined in Canada 70 years ago through an emergency order-in council. It was the culmination of hard fought struggles, work place conflicts and strike actions.

While welcomed as a major victory for labour militancy, trade unionists knew the Liberal government that held power at the time was anxious to counter a surge in public support for its left-wing adversary in Ontario and nationally, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunner of the NDP.

In 1948, the Canadian parliament enacted the Industrial Relations and Disputes Investigation Act to give legislative effect to basic labour rights.

Recognition that the right to association -- protected in the 1982 Charter of Canadian Rights and Freedoms -- implied full expression of trade union rights was only recognized for the first time in 2007 by the Supreme Court. 

Whatever unions do on behalf of the membership only tells part of the story. The labour movement is also the vehicle for the advancement of human rights of every kind in all jurisdictions.

Worldwide, labour has fought capitalists who deny the social origins of wealth and income, imperialists who want brothers to fight brothers in the name of empire, and fascists who suppress all human rights and take it upon themselves to exterminate people they designate as enemies, as the Nazis did to those of the Jewish faith, disabled people, the Roma and Communists.

Second World War veteran Kalman Kaplansky represented Canada at the International Labour Organization and was Director of International Affairs for the CLC. He never ceased working to end discrimination and advance human rights, and argued significant advances in human rights, peace in the world and an end to atrocities everywhere would only happen when people's organizations -- trade unions -- championed basic rights, and educated each other on what it means to achieve security for all, and live without fear.

The Canadian labour movement has worked to achieve major social and economic goals and to see them protected. It has faced determined opposition to basic labour rights from wealthy industrialists, and giant transnational corporations.

There has never been an easy way to bring about equality of men and women, recognition of minority rights, protection for the vulnerable and a just workplace, let alone the right to vote, or to express dissent, or to militate for change through free association of working people.

Recognizing that much remains to be accomplished, trade unions are the site of continued debate over the best course of action. Issues are taken seriously, temperatures rise and serious differences emerge.

At any time those members who want to negotiate with the employer have to counter arguments for more militant action by unionists who want to mobilize the membership. Leaders who think unions should focus on dealing with workplace issues hear from brothers and sisters who want labour to play a larger role in Canadian political life.

Labour unions operate through representation of workers at all levels: union locals, municipal labour councils, provincial federations, national organizations and through the CLC.

At all levels it takes superior leadership skills to encourage the expression of divergent views, arrive at an agreed position, and keep space open for dissident voices. People who win elected office are expected to be on the job for each member they represent. Strong leaders like the late Nancy Riche continue to inspire those who build on the experience of battles past.

The Canadian labour movement has its roots in the fight against exploitation of the propertyless and destitute by vicious employers. By the late 19th century, the industrial Knights of Labour had signed up more than 20,000 Canadian workers.

Dignity and respect in the workplace and the eight-hour workday were already an objective of Canadian labour in the 1880s.

The Second World War saw an explosion of union activism. Full employment through government planning showed that the idea that people without work were unemployed because of their own shortcomings was a lie.

In 1945,11,000 Autoworkers began a 99-day strike at the Ford Plant in Windsor, winning major concessions for the membership. The result was the adoption of the Rand formula: all workers paid dues whether they joined the union or not because: "those workers that share in the benefits established by the union should also shoulder part of the burden, the maintenance of the union."

Historically, politics and labour are never far apart. Labour action brought old age pensions, unemployment insurance, compensation for workplace accidents and occupational safety regulations.

In 1961 the CLC and the CCF created the New Democratic Party. The NDP pushed a Liberal minority government, and in 1968 Canada wide medicare was instituted, following on the example set by the CCF/NDP government in Saskatchewan.

From the 1960s, the advance of public sector unions was rapid, and had a profound impact on working life across Canada. New voices and new concerns were raised within the CLC, and the Canadian union movement was strengthened in number, and diversity.

Further reductions in the work week, without reduction in pay and quality of workplace issues rank high among the goals of local unions and national labour bodies.

Labour activists know that issues such as climate change and environmental destruction demand immediate action. Concerns about child labour, starvation wages, and poor living conditions require continued attention around the world. Issues of militarism, war and peace and ending armed conflict engage Canadian workers.

The challenges labour faces in the workplace come from globalized speculative capital, and government "austerity" programs designed to placate bondholders, and suppress wages and salaries.

French economist Thomas Piketty has added weight to labour concerns about economic injustices by showing how income from capital is growing faster than income from work, His call for a new regime of worldwide wealth taxation to address growing global inequalities will be widely debated along with other policy options emanating from labour organizations, or pro-labour research institutes such as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Labour has allies in civil society, and works in coalitions to improve the quality of life for all Canadians, and to set a course for the future. Labour supports a host of organizations and community activities, including this news site, rabble.ca.

All labour delegates gathering in Montreal from May 5 to May 9 can take pride in being part of the greatest of all social movements for economic justice.

Check out the rest of the UP! Canadian labour rising series here.

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