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Labour Day: getting past neutral

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Image: Ewe Neon/Flickr

Canadian workers should be boiling mad this Labour Day. The economy is apparently on the uptick, but instead of the promises of working class progress, only a few have made any real gains.  Precarious work is trending towards the new normal, and new workplace laws that were intended to give a hand up to vulnerable workers have been stalled or rolled back. For the big majority of workers, those $15 minimum wages are still a long way off.

There will be speeches and a few picket signs on these and other grievances, of course, when Canadian unions rally members for marches and picnics on this Labour Day weekend. But it's not clear exactly where the frustrations and indignation of workers is being directed. My union, Unifor, will hold separate Labour Day events in many places, underscoring the continuing differences with the largest CLC unions.  And only weeks out from a crucial federal election, a unifying message to rally the labour movement seems to be missing.

There are a few modest gains for workers in 2019 to be noted this Labour Day. B.C. has new labour laws offering increased protections for workers trying to organize and stronger successorship provisions for contact workers. Non union workers have beefed up inspections on wage theft, and hospitality workers will get to keep their tips. But there was no breakthrough in B.C. for worker rights which retained mandatory elections to unionize and steered clear of any structural reforms towards sectoral or broader based bargaining that would make unionization practical for millions of workers in the new economy. 

New workplace laws also take effect September 1 in the federal jurisdiction which increase minimum vacations entitlements, allow the right to refuse overtime because of family responsibilities, and improve scheduling and notice provisions.  

One issue on which there was a progressive wave in 2019 was leave provisions for domestic violence, formerly only available in Manitoba.  Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland, PEI and the federal jurisdiction all brought in paid leave for victims of domestic violence, while B.C. and Alberta provided unpaid leave.

But against these patchwork of incremental gains, Ontario and Alberta each enacted commonly named "Open for Business" Acts that shredded new and hopeful advances in worker rights before they could be consolidated. Ontario began 2019 by cavalierly eliminating wholesale the important reforms that had resulted from a historic two-year, comprehensive review of precarious work and the new economy.  In Alberta the reforms to allow organizing by signing cards (with a super majority of 65 per cent) and other key provisions to benefit workers are also now repealed. There are rumblings in Alberta of anti-union laws inspired by the attacks on unions by Trump's U.S. Supreme Court.

And what about those minimum wages, the floor by which society attaches a value to the dignity of work?  Alberta is the only place in Canada with a $15 minimum, thanks to the former Notley government that actually implemented $15 rather than a promise for the by and by. But Alberta students had it cut back to $13. The $1 an hour increase promised this year to bring Ontario workers to $15 was cancelled. B.C. has promised $15, but not until 2021. Five other provinces have paltry minimums below $12 hour -- Saskatchewan winning the award for cheap labour which will increase its minimum wage to $11.32 in October.

In 2019 we remembered the Winnipeg General Strike, but on balance the centenary of that historic struggle has been a year without meaningful working class political or economic progress.  

It could get much worse. Labour Day launches a federal election campaign that is a toss up, after several months of a clear Conservative Party advantage. If the Conservatives regain the government, the federal jurisdiction would quickly follow Alberta and Ontario into the backward column. The labour movement appears stuck in neutral, neither gearing up or down to meet the challenge. Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff told the Winnipeg Free Press in May that the labour movement has a "grab bag" of political strategies for the federal election from union to union.  

2019 seems eerily reminiscent of the foreboding in 2011 that was the genesis for the decision to create Unifor, founded on Labour Day 2013 with a mission to change the labour movement and the country. By the end of 2015 most of labour's worst enemies were out of office, and a new period of progress seemed to be opening. But that opening is today being slammed shut, while labour is mired in internal divisions and business-as-usual unionism.

This Labour Day will not rock with excitement. But it is a time for reflection and an urgently needed jump start towards a new kind of union movement with bigger ambitions and a much stronger force to change political and economic outcomes for Canadian workers. 

Fred Wilson is the retired director of strategic planning for Unifor, and author of A New Kind of Union, published in 2019 by James Lorimer and Company.

Image: Ewe Neon / Flickr

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