Labour Day is not just another holiday. People working outside the home for an income are the main actors in a modern society. The emergence of a mass of wage earners and salaried employees transformed our social and political life. Workers, paid and unpaid, deserve to be celebrated, and merit a better existence.

Though you do not often hear it said out loud, labour creates capital. The capitalist enterprise grows because it pays its workers only what they need to keep going. Since workers produce for the enterprise more than they are paid, capital accumulates. So long as we have capital, we will have a labouring class; they are two sides of the same process we call working.

When you take a good and exchange it for another good, you have barter. When you exchange the good for money, so as to buy another good, you have trade. Capitalism should never be confused with either, despite what its defenders pretend.

A capitalist enterprise takes money, buys goods and sells them for more money. Money and credit are necessary for expanded trade, otherwise only barter is possible. But capitalism starts with money, not goods; and aims to make more money, not buy other goods.

Circulation of money began in Greece in the 6th century B.C., 1200 years before feudalism, and another 2500 years before the steam engine, so capitalism is not primarily about money.

Capitalism first needs wage labour. People free of slavery and of serfdom need paid work to live. Capitalist society wants a labour market where people can be hired and fired at will. But labour is not a commodity to be sold like so many carrots or potatoes. Workers expect a decent living, not wage slavery, or debt peonage.

Exploitation, horrific working conditions, an inhuman existence — this is where working class politics come from. The struggle to improve daily life is what is at issue in unionization drives, collective bargaining and strike action. Despite the obvious bias in reporting of these issues by the corporate press, the historical record is clear. The roots of trade unions and labour parties are in struggles for the ennoblement of the spirit, and against the abasement of human dignity.

The capitalist economic model is not inevitable, nor all pervasive. Politics shape our world, elected governments are made aware of realities in daily life. Families want services: schools, hospitals, parks, sports, recreation and cultural facilities. The right to vote, hard won, means people have citizenship rights they can use to make political choices. The quality of family life depends largely on outcomes of the political process.

Political questions are tied to ideas about justice. How should we live? According to the rule of the strongest? Or following a democratic ethos? In his first campaign as Liberal leader in 1968, Pierre Trudeau said Canadians wanted a just society. The expression, “a just society,” came from Frank Scott, poet, constitutional lawyer, a president of the CCF, and friend of the former prime minister.

Though it may not be just, a capitalist society has principles of justice. And, so did societies based on slavery, or feudalism. They are not the same principles, obviously. But, it follows from their differences that we should be able to envisage another justice, other than capitalist justice. Bettering our existence depends on it.

It is not possible for employers to dominate workers without the supremacy of private property rights — enshrined in law, and protected by the police and the courts — over human rights. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms excluded property rights, but it does not yet include economic and social rights.

Capitalism marks a vast improvement on feudalism, let alone slavery, and so it has its positive features. But, it can be improved upon, not least from the viewpoint of working people. And working is what the majority of people do, have done, or are looking to do.

For working class politics, the crux of the matter is this: a just society requires a democracy that is incompatible with the priority given under law to protecting rights to private ownership that serve capitalist enterprise.So, trade unions, public enterprises, co-operatives, civil society organizations and all other bodies working to fulfil basic human needs, and promote human rights, need to enshrine principles of economic and social justice in law, and have them protected by the courts, and nourished by elected governments and public servants. The only way to do this is through the formal political process of parties, and elections.

A just society is impossible without democracy, but not the converse. The proof is that Canada has a working formal democracy, but not a just society. The great feat would be to make our quasi-democracy work to bring about a just society. It will happen, when our working men and women decide to make it happen, not before, and not through action by anyone else.

The challenge to trade unions, farmer-labour parties such as the NDP, and social organizations is to bring democratic justice, and the vision of a just society into the daily lives of their membership. When our people demand economic and social rights, and will accept nothing less than a just society, it will surely be the happiest of labour days.

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...