Labour Day is here. A last opportunity to enjoy a little bit of the summer with our friends, family and loved ones. But for the labour movement, it’s a time to do more than reflect -- Labour Day is a time to think about moving ahead, and where we need to go as a social movement.
We learned this year during strikes in Windsor and Toronto that the easiest way for business and government to avoid responsibility for the mistakes they have made for decades is to deflect blame and accuse unionized workers of being out of touch with new realities. It conveniently ignores the reality they created, while helping to perpetuate their hold on power, as if they hadn’t created the conditions which led to our current economic crisis.
It also conveniently ignores that the labour movement has always been at the forefront of a better world for all citizens, not just a very small group who reaps the greatest benefit from the system they constructed for themselves.
Our history, our legacy and our core value as we move into the future is that all citizens should share the benefits of a world that is fairer and more just. That is where we have been, and that is where we need to go.
We can reclaim our true place in society as the bold, passionate and compassionate visionaries who have always been on the right side of history. Labour alone didn’t create Medicare, Canada Pension, Employment Insurance, the 40-hour workweek, child labour laws and minimum wages, pay equity and so many other cherished threads of our social fabric. A broad coalition of progressives from all walks of life -- including labour unions -- made a case to the public and our politicians that everyone deserved these reforms.
The issues, the means of communication and the tactics change and evolve with the times, but this model endures in small and big ways, across Ontario and beyond. We see this in the recent Site 41 victory in Simcoe County. We were proud to offer assistance to the Beausoleil First Nation, local farmers, concerned citizens and the Council of Canadians in their struggle to stop construction of a landfill on top of what is arguably the purest source of water on the planet. Everyone deserves clean water. Together, we put that case before the people of Simcoe County and their elected officials. Together, we made a positive difference.
In the United States, private and public-sector unions have made the connection with environmentalists and formed the Blue Green Alliance to make the link between a healthier environment and better jobs for Americans. What began in 2006 as an alliance between the United Steelworkers of America and the Sierra Club now comprises unions and social groups that unite 8 million people in common causes -- a healthier environment, investments in green technologies that create well-paying environmentally-sustainable jobs, better protections for workers. Different issues, but the model is much the same as the one used for Site 41. People, committed to change, joining themselves, their expertise and resources together to create positive, tangible change that moves us a little closer to a better world.
This is labour’s past, present and future -- a force for progressive, positive change for all citizens. As the parades wind down this Labour Day, I hope others will join me in reaffirming labour’s rightful place in the body politic.
In his inaugural address, the late President John F. Kennedy pledged that his nation would, “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to ensure the survival and success of liberty.”
So it should be with labour and that great majority of the population around the world who share our belief in a more just society. We must pledge to share our resources, expertise and numbers with all who need them -- the poor, the marginalized, newcomers, the oppressed, workers, students, families, all of us united in our knowledge that the dream of a better world can and will be a reality.
Looking forward, we must commit ourselves to joining with others who share that dream, so together we can lobby, cajole and push businesses and governments to act in the public’s interest, rather than their own. Together, we make the dream of secure, stable public pensions for all a reality. We can move forward on Kennedy’s dream of the world encapsulated by an earlier line in that famous speech. Humanity, he said, held in its mortal hands, “the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.”
Together with our friends -- civil society groups like the Council of Canadians, our fellow private and public-sector unions, progressively-minded politicians, political parties and ordinary women and men who aspire to a fairer, better world for everyone -- we have made and will continue to take action towards making that world a reality.
Individually, none of us has all the answers. Collectively, we possess many.
Sid Ryan is President of CUPE Ontario.
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