Labour Day reminds us that hard work is rewarded
How often have you heard someone say they are tired of politics, or that it is all the same and nothing ever changes? As we approach Labour Day we should remember that so many of the gains we enjoy were hard-fought for and would never have come about if people succumbed to those sentiments. While people may not consider the work undertaken by organized labour as being political, it really is. That’s because, in addition to localized workplace concerns such as bargaining on contracts, the labour movement contributes to our legislative agenda as well. Important concepts like work-place health and safety, maternity leave, and corporate responsibility are rooted in the political work led by organized labour.
In most instances, the victories of the labour movement have had an effect on all work-places. Consider how the forty hour work week, child labour laws, and minimum wage are simply accepted norms. In their time, each of these was the product of hard work and even bitter, divisive struggles. But despite these gains that benefit so much of society, there are still politicians and public figures who stand in opposition to organized labour. They promote the notion that we have moved beyond the usefulness of our unions, but that idea only serves the interest of a very few, privileged people.
The truth is that union participation is declining at the same time as income inequality is growing. This is more visible in the U.S. where the rate of private sector unionization has fallen to 10% from a high of 34% in 1979. There are academic studies that suggest the benefits of unionized pay structure extend well beyond union work places. Researchers at the University of Washington show that the biggest change would be for male workers without college degrees who would earn 9% more in non-unionized workplaces if union participation returned to 1979 rates. For those workers, unions have not outlived their usefulness. The drop in participation has increased the income divide at their expense and added to the ranks of the working poor.
Union participation rates have also declined in Canada over the same period of time and only 16% of our private workplaces remain unionized. While that number is slightly better than in America, we can expect the same effect on wages for non-unionized workplaces as has occurred south of the border. In addition to lower wages, more workers are getting by without pensions or benefit plans. This only places stress on our social safety net which ultimately cost us more as tax dollars are used to replace the wages, pensions, and benefits that could be the bed-rock of a stronger economy that works for more people.
That is why we must not give in to the notion that we are tired of politics. It only serves the status quo without adding to the greater good. Instead, we can take inspiration from the work undertaken by organized labour that has made our workplaces better in so many ways and commit ourselves to similar struggles. That will make a difference for us and for future generations. That is why it is important to celebrate our victories on Labour Day and remind ourselves that only hard work will create a better world.
Happy Labour Day!