This year marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. Though there had been world conflicts between empires in earlier centuries, this one was different both in the extent of the carnage and in the fact that it marked the end of the European empires that participated. It also saw nationalistic impulses trump international worker solidarity. Some workers in the trenches on both sides refused to go along, but their “reward” was to be shot by their own side rather than by the enemy.

The Treaty of Versailles set the stage for the Second World War. On the plus side, in setting up the League of Nations, they also established the International Labour Organization (ILO) to set international labour standards. While the Canadian labour movement has been and continues to be an active participant in the ILO, Canadian governments have hid behind the federal division of powers and refused to ratify many of the covenants. 

Canadian soldiers returning home after the First World War often faced a grim life. The Spanish flu killed more then the whole war and in both cases it was the young who were usually the victims. There was little attempt to insure either employment or education for veterans. The political result was the rise of farmer-labour governments at the provincial level and the formation of Progressive and Labour parties at the national level. It was in 1926 that J. S. Woodsworth forced King’s Liberal government to introduce the first Canadian Old Age Security. It was only a dollar a day and only available at 70 years of age but it was a start.

After the Second World War, governments which had learned the economic lessons of Keynes and the political lessons of the wars sought to operate in what was a de facto social contract. Union organization expanded and labour was a major partner in national economic councils. But it took the formation of the NDP to force through social legislation like Canada and Quebec Pension Plans (CPP/QPP), medicare and the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP).

Alas this progress stalled in the ’70s. When faced with the opportunity to introduce a Guaranteed Annual Income and to expand the CPP/QPP, the Trudeau Liberal government opted to remove tax revenue and benefit the banks and insurance companies by introducing RRSPs. In the ’80s the Mulroney Conservative government began to reverse the gains made by pushing trade deals which benefited corporations at the expense of those who worked for them.

The result has been Dickensian exploitation of workers in countries like Bangladesh and unemployed youth in formerly industrialized countries. We clearly need effective international oversight to protect workers everywhere.

To cite one example, Turin, a city of almost 1 million people, is best known as home of Fiat. It is also home to a chocolate industry, Nutella, Vermouth and many other goods. Today 38 per cent of youth are unemployed. Of those ages 18-15, 25 per cent are neither in school nor in the job market. The figures are much worse for regions in southern Italy. Government and personal debt is on the rise and there are calls for cuts in government pensions which are at levels similar to those paid to average Canadian workers. The Turin paper, La Stampa, for a week ran major articles on the end of the middle class.

Often governments who want to cut pension benefits pose the options as youth versus seniors. They say that they don’t want to favour seniors over the young. To counter this false generational conflict, there must be more explicit working together of seniors and students.

If we don’t stop the clock from being turned back to the time of the First World War, we will revisit the era of the Dirty ’30s described so well by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. Then, it was the foreclosures on tenant farmers that drove people to the road, today it will be plant closures. Steinbeck’s words still ring true:

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The  fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates — died of malnutrition — because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.

….In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

 Lest we forget.

Retiree Matters is a monthly column written by members of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC) that explores issues relevant to retirees, senior citizens, their families and their communities. CURC acts as an advocacy organization to ensure that the concerns of union retirees and senior citizens are heard throughout Canada.

Retiree Matters

Retiree Matters is a monthly column written by members of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC) that explores issues relevant to retirees, senior citizens, their families and their communities....

Pat Kerwin

Pat Kerwin is a contributor to rabble’s Retiree Matters column and the President of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada. Prior to his retirement, he worked for the Canadian Labour Congress....