First published here in 2009
Flipping the radio dial on Labour Day I noticed CKNW’s Christy Clark featured a guest who seemed a strange choice on that day. It was a Fraser Institute automaton, there to talk once more about our “unsustainable medical system.” This is content that the silver-spooned Shaw Family, owners of Corus Radio, want you to focus on during the day set aside to honor the Canadian labour movement.
How fortunate we are to have the Fraser Institoot available on this statutory holiday. Here to counsel us about social programs. Under the chairmanship of one of BC’s lesser billionaires, with a who’s-who board of preciously rich folks, where anyone whose wealth can be measured with fewer than nine digits is patronized, the Fraser Institute steps forward to tell us we don’t deserve universal medical care.
After tossing my radio over the fence, I reflected on what Labour Day means to me.
In modern times, the Canadian union movement has lost influence but not relevance. It is easy to forget that unions enabled a broad middle class. Workers in unionized company towns in BC’s 20th century resource economy set the bar for others. They showed how positive full employment with good wages enables high quality life for the entire community.
I was schooled in the coastal town of Powell River where what was then the world’s largest pulp and paper mill provided good jobs and reasonable supports to almost any local family with a member who chose to work there. High school graduates – well, males anyway – were almost guaranteed summer employment if they went on to university. Countless people who became lawyers, engineers, accountants and professional tradespeople had their post-secondary educations enabled. Not just in Powell River either. Other industrial towns, with workers benefiting from healthy union wages, were similar.
These communities had comparatively few social problems, little poverty and excellent facilities, from schools to recreation centres. My wife and I recently attended our 45-year high school reunion in Powell River. People returned from all over to join those still resident in the town. Interestingly, over 90% of our class survive and hold happy memories of our youth. Sadly, the great employment opportunities we had are mostly gone, with the paper mill now a shadow of its former self. It offers fewer than 15% of the jobs provided in 1964 and none of those are truly secure.
On Labour Day, more than most days, we should remember and reflect upon a page of history. Inspired by the nine-hour movement in England, the Toronto Printers’ Union asked for a reduced workweek in 1872. Employers called the demand for six 9-hours days foolish, absurd and unreasonable. George Brown, a “Father of Confederation” and leading Liberal, was also founder of the Globe newspaper. He wrote:
It is utterly ridiculous to talk of the rapacity and despotism of the employer. The tyranny of the employed over his master would be an infinitely truer version of the case. Proprietors have suffered for years from intolerable and increasing oppression.
Unwillingness to compromise led to a strike although timid supporters of the action warned against “obstinate dogmatism”, “ruffianism”, demagoguery and revolutionary ideas. Using a law from 1792, newspaper owners launched a legal action against the union for “conspiracy” and police jailed the 24 member strike committee.
Thousands of working class citizens took to the streets. Public outrage encouraged Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to rescue the imprisoned men by passage of a Trade Union Act, which legalized and protected union activity. However, alongside the Trade Union Act, Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act which made demonstrations and picketing illegal. And while unions were now legal, employers did not have to recognize or negotiate with them.
The first mass Canadian workers’ movement had a lasting legacy and it was celebrated annually in Toronto. Under pressure, the Canadian government made Labour Day a national holiday and the celebration spread across Canada and the continent.
Labour Day in the United States began in 1882. After the deaths of workers by the hands of the military and US Marshals, American leaders desired reconciliation with the Labour movement. In 1894, fearing further conflict and worrying about American alignment with international May Day workers’ events, Congress passed legislation making the September Labour Day national holiday.
September 3, 2011, Robert Reich, former secretary of labor, now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, presents an opinion piece in the New York Times, The Limping Middle Class. It presents material worth focusing on for Labour Day this year. (H/T Chris M.)
THE 5 percent of Americans with the highest incomes now account for 37 percent of all consumer purchases, according to the latest research from Moody’s Analytics. That should come as no surprise. Our society has become more and more unequal.
When so much income goes to the top, the middle class doesn’t have enough purchasing power to keep the economy going without sinking ever more deeply into debt — which, as we’ve seen, ends badly. An economy so dependent on the spending of a few is also prone to great booms and busts. The rich splurge and speculate when their savings are doing well. But when the values of their assets tumble, they pull back. That can lead to wild gyrations. Sound familiar?
…The economy cannot possibly get out of its current doldrums without a strategy to revive the purchasing power of America’s vast middle class. The spending of the richest 5 percent alone will not lead to a virtuous cycle of more jobs and higher living standards. Nor can we rely on exports to fill the gap. It is impossible for every large economy, including the United States, to become a net exporter.
Reviving the middle class requires that we reverse the nation’s decades-long trend toward widening inequality. This is possible notwithstanding the political power of the executive class. So many people are now being hit by job losses, sagging incomes and declining home values that Americans could be mobilized.
Moreover, an economy is not a zero-sum game. Even the executive class has an enlightened self-interest in reversing the trend; just as a rising tide lifts all boats, the ebbing tide is now threatening to beach many of the yachts. The question is whether, and when, we will summon the political will. We have summoned it before in even bleaker times.
“As the historian James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream when he coined the term at the depths of the Great Depression, what we seek is “a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.”
That dream is still within our grasp.