Labour Day is typically the day workers and their families put aside to celebrate the gains made in workplace standards over the years. For decades, taking stock was an exercise in marking achievements in health and safety protections and practices, establishing wage levels that approximated a living wage.
Cornwall - Sep. 2, 2011 - Labour Day is typically the day workers and their families put aside to celebrate the gains made in workplace standards over the years. For decades, taking stock was an exercise in marking achievements in health and safety protections and practices, establishing wage levels that approximated a living wage and then ensured it kept pace with inflation, negotiating pension benefits, unemployment insurance, holidays, weekends, and workplace accident and illness insurance programs.
Most of these gains were made through the efforts of organized labour. The union gave the workers the collective voice to negotiate with the employer on the basis that the worker should enjoy the a measure of security and well being through the wealth generated by their labour. The fruits of labour, namely an affordable mortgage, education for the kids, enough grocery money to buy fresh fruits and vegetables in addition to staples were within reach of every working person. And workers in non-union workplaces benefited too. A union wage set a standard. But the wheels have been coming off that particular bus though over a quarter of a century.
For years, wage gains for working people have been held to 1 or 2% a year, and given the rate of inflation, wages have effectively stagnated. The Conference Board of Canada recognized this reality in a recent study. In the 33 years between 1976 and 2009, median income increased by just 5.5 per cent - from $45,800 in 1976 to $48,300 in 2009.
It is no coincidence that leaner paychecks and reduced or minimal benefits are growing as union membership is down. Legislation has limited the ability of workers to organize and facilitated the contracting out of union jobs. Workers are pressured to accept less and forgo pension and other benefit provisions in a spiraling race to the bottom. It’s not as though there isn’t money in the system; it’s increasingly concentrated among the richest 20% of Canadians, and government policy increasingly supports the shift. The same thinking that beefs up inordinate tax breaks for corporations and holds healthcare spending to under the rate of inflation is hollowing out the middle class and reducing the capacity of a fulltime job to sustain a family and afford one a measure of retirement security in their senior years.
But the struggle continues, and it is within this context that I salute the brothers and sisters of the OPSEU local currently walking the line at 24 community colleges, St. Lawrence among them. In the public service, healthcare and education, workers are continually pressured to accept terms of wages and benefits that mean they and their dependents are actually subsidizing the institutions in which they work. Critics of labour point to globalization as the cause of this pressure on workers, but the fact remains that workers still have to buy their groceries here in Canada, and the rate of increase in the price of bread here is outpacing the capacity of the wages to afford it. The support workers at the college are holding the line for all of us. Their struggle gives meaning to Labour Day.
President of the Cornwall & District Labour Council