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National Day of Mourning: Past sacrifice, present struggle

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Photo: Heather Hutchinson/Flickr

Weekends aside, there's still a lot to thank unions for.

Maternity leave top-up. Employment Insurance. Child labour laws.

Numerous studies -- past, and more recent -- have identified the degree to which unions have contributed to more equitable, safer societies, and jobs where the normally stubbornly persistent gender pay gap has been virtually eliminated.

But on the eve of the National Day of Mourning, it's important to address in very concrete terms why unions are so important.

Because they save lives.

Put simply, fewer people are dying today in their workplaces because of those men and women who fought, and struggled, and protested, and picketed -- and yes, who were injured or killed while doing their jobs. As a result of their victories, we are not only better off economically and socially: we are safer. And to the dead, and to the surviving veterans of social progress, we owe an immense debt.

But let's be clear: their struggles -- and ours -- are by no means over. Provincial and federal governments and political parties, some with all the nuance of a sledgehammer, are calling for or introducing various manifestations of American-style anti-union laws, in spite of the evidence of the ongoing need for the social, economic and workplace gains that unions won for all of us, and continue to advocate for.

The proof that the need for these protections still exists confronts us all too frequently; today, people still die as a result of workplace fatalities or occupational disease merely because they, like thousands of others, go to work.

Canadians work on average 230 days a year; this means there were nearly four work-related deaths per workday (and this doesn't include workers not covered by Workers Compensation and who therefore do not appear in WCB databases).

Think about that. 939 dead in 2009. 1,014 dead in 2010. 919 dead in 2011. Those numbers represent farmers, fishers, loggers, and miners as well as people working in transportation, manufacturing and construction. They also represent parents, children, siblings, friends and community members.

There's little doubt that austerity hysteria is contributing to the rise of insecure work, with particularly troubling results. Precarious working conditions impact not just economic well-being and job security, but social and personal lives too. Household stress is increasing, and people are indicating they have less and less time for community involvement.

Further, more than 80 per cent of those people who are precariously employed have no benefits; this makes them even more vulnerable to unexpected occurrences such as illness or injury.

Precarious work -- and the havoc it wreaks on people's lives -- does not happen in a vacuum. Corporate profits continue to increase along with household debt levels, and inequality is becoming even more entrenched. Canadians are being told they have to expect less, work harder, take fewer breaks, and be ready to move across the country to find a job -- any job. And, even then, employers have a variety of measures at their disposal -- including the 15 per cent-less-salary-Temporary-Foreign-Worker Sword of Damocles -- when workers get too expensive. Or too uppity. Or too concerned about their personal safety in a hazardous workplace.

You might say that, deliberately and relentlessly, workers are being austerrified.

And in spite of insistence by governments and business that unions, while necessary way back in the Dark Ages or thereabouts, have "outlived their usefulness," the events of the past week (let alone the past decades) underscore that when it comes to workplace safety, unions are often the only source of protection left to workers.

The West fertilizer explosion in Texas and the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh are grim reminders that employers and ideologically like-minded governments are only too willing to gut health and safety standards and enforcement in the name of competitiveness and the ubiquitous "cutting of red tape."

This was precisely the mindset -- and the carnage -- that our veterans of social progress challenged here at home, and their successful fight for workplace health and safety standards has saved the lives of thousands of Canadians. The National Day of Mourning is a painful reminder that this struggle is not over, that many lives were lost along the way, and that the unchecked push to maximize corporate profits too often eclipses the basic health and wellbeing of the very people on whom much of that profit depends.

April 28 is also an opportunity to honour the men and women who, while doing their jobs, literally sacrificed life and limb; and as a result, we as a society are far safer through legislation that was subsequently passed and the gains that were realized. These people deserve our respect and our gratitude, as do those who continue to fight on our behalf for better, safer, more secure workplaces and the higher quality of life that they bring.

But we must never for an instant believe the rhetoric from those who stand to profit the most from lower barriers (read: workplace standards, and an organized workforce that can push back against the austerity agenda) to corporate profits that the battle has been won. The continuing death toll proves it.

Photo: Heather Hutchinson/Flickr

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