Unions: The folks who brought you the Labour Day weekend – and so much more

Star forum — By Mary Shortall

Published on August 29, 2014

Dear Editor: The first Monday of September marks the last official long weekend of the summer, a time for some to close up the cabin, get the children ready for back to school or get in that last family barbecue of the summer.

The first Monday of September is also Canada’s Labour Day weekend — and across the country, unions organize events which highlight labour’s past achievements and celebrate union solidarity.

What had begun with unions standing up for fairness so long ago, has brought us to this day for everyone to enjoy.

Labour Day became an official statutory holiday 120 years ago. In 1872, workers took to the streets in solidarity with printers in Toronto who were on strike for a nine-hour day. They soon realized their power when they united as one against a common cause.

On Labour Day, we celebrate the realization that when unions stand up for fairness — everyone benefits.

Any labour activist will attest that no victory for workers, past or present, union or not — was ever won without a struggle.

We have gained much from our struggles and political action. Much of what we take for granted in terms of progress for all working people, whether or not they belong to a union, was likely first negotiated by workers and their unions.

Not just the 40-hour work week, but for minimum wage and benefits, working conditions, pensions, paid vacation, health and safety laws, maternity and parental leave, unemployment insurance, medi-care, CPP, employment standards, employment and pay equity, collective bargaining rights, same sex rights and human rights laws, among others.

Union members in this country can truly celebrate the “union advantage.”

In fact, research from the Canadian Labour Congress has found that decent, middle class, family-supporting wages translate into vibrant communities all over Canada. According to their research, towns and cities with more union members support a richer mix of businesses and services which benefit everyone.

They are better places to live and work because of unions.

Nationally, on average, unionized workers earned $5.17 an hour more last year than nonunionized workers.

That translates into an additional $823.3 million every week into the pockets of 4.69 million working people in Canada — people who spend that money in their communities and in local businesses.

They contribute to the tax base at all levels which in turn supports public services, public works, community services and charities.

The CLC’s research further shows that belonging to a union is especially important for women and young workers.

Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, there are 83,600 union members working in the province — 40 per cent of the workforce. Those workers earned on average $6.02 an hour more because their unions negotiated fair wages and work hours. That means $19.5 million more is pumped into our economy each week. For women, it’s a whopping $8.46 an hour or $13.9 million a week and for young unionized workers (aged 15-24), it’s $7.12/hour or $1.6 million a week. So, on Labour Day — we celebrate. Our solidarity has made life better for all working families.

We also take a collective deep breath in preparation for the challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead.

If we want a healthy middle class, then the unions, who helped to create it, need to be strong and ever vigilant. We know that unions are what stands between workers and those who want to weaken us.

We know that unions are the single most important counterbalance to corporate power and to ensuring the wealth from our economy gets shared, rather than hoarded by one per cent of the population.

When we see governments and employers using tactics that attack fundamental labour rights, including the right to join unions and to engage in fair and free collective bargaining, the impact is felt by everyone ... including tomorrow’s workers.

We need to be very clear. If governments are taking away our rights — then it will be at their peril. And at the peril of the corporations and their organizations which are all heartened and encouraged by government actions.

Governments can legislate away our rights, but they can never legislate away our anger, determination and solidarity — we will continue to press for legislative improvements to level the playing field and protect workers. We will continue to fight for strong health and safety laws for all workers.

So this Labour Day we salute the 65,000 women and men of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour who make a difference every day in every single community in this province. They make our economy work by producing goods, and providing services as proud union members, and who fight injustice and inequality for all citizens through their activism.

We honour all workers in our province, and we commit to continuing to struggle for a better and fairer world for all workers — a world where everyone gets a share of the wealth we create every single day.

We invite everyone to come celebrate labour with us at various events around the province.

Mary Shortall, president, Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour