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Monday, September 03, 2012

Reflections on Labour Day

The first Monday in September means different things to different people in North America.  To children, it is the last day before they head back to school.  To families, it is the last hooray of summer and the unofficial end of the season.  To workers, it is Labour Day, a holiday that has been observed for over a century.  It was a day off work and a chance to show your solidarity with fellow workers.

To the rest of the world, Labour Day doesn't mean much because May Day is the global equivalent.  However, the rest of the world should take note because North American workers are facing an attack on their rights unprecedented in recent years.

I have discussed several high-profile issues, including the back-to-work legislation imposed on Air Canada employees and the closure of the EMD plant in London.  In fact, the EMD issue has become the poster child for anti-union tactics in North America.

The most recent attack has been directed at Ontario teachers.  September 1st was the expiry of their previous collective agreements.  To prevent the previous agreements from rolling over, the government sat down to renegotiate new, and poorer, deals.   The Catholic and Francophone teachers' unions agreed to new deals with the Ontario government, deals which included concessions to reduce the deficit (or so the government said).  The English teachers' unions did not agree to the concessions and are now faced with a draconian curtailment of their rights.  The law will force a new agreement onto the unions which will include a clause banning the right to strike for two years.  The law is also retroactive because the government was unable to pass it before the September 1 deadline.  So, while the previous agreements did indeed roll over, the law will negate this.  The entire issue is likely to end up before the courts.

What we are seeing in North America today is a general feeling that unions are a thing of the past, holdouts to the new world of corporate supremacy and reduced rights for workers in favour of economic progress.  The problem is that governments are also increasingly siding with companies.  Take the case of Ontario teachers.  The government's stand is 'Parents: look at the evil teachers who are asking for more money and might strike.  We can't have that, you might actually have to look after your kids for once.'  There is a growing opposition to this new reality.  The Occupy movement was a sign of this, as is the growing popularity of the NDP in Canada.

We are also seeing a new class division, between university-educated professionals and the rest.  This is most obvious in the extension of shopping hours.  Our new retail economy has divided people between high-earners and those employed to serve them.  Civic Holiday, an August holiday in Canada, is increasingly not as stores are open for the convenience of shoppers.  What this means is that if you haven't got one of the professional jobs, you do not merit a holiday.  Retail employees form a new underclass to serve the more privileged.  It's like going back in time.

Is there hope for the future?  It's hard to tell.  Political movements tend to go in cycles and we are in the middle of a very pro-business right-wing one.  However, the tide is turning: France now has a Socialist in power.

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