Is Labour losing its relevance?

By Jamie Hellewell

In 1894, two miles of union supporters marched through Winnipeg streets celebrating the victories and future of the Canadian working class in the first-ever Canadian Labour Day.

On Sept. 4, 2000, millions of Canadians marched to the local Gap outlet to purchase stylish body coverings for the new school year. For post-modern Canadians, it seems Labour Day has no more to do with trade unionism or workers’ rights than Christmas has to do with Christ.

What happened to trade unionism in Canada? For most of the past century, Labour Day meant millions of working people and their families walking the streets in celebration of the union movement and in defiance of concentrated wealth. Today, wealth is less equally distributed than ever before, but for most young Canadians trade unions are as mysterious and distant–even bizarre–as the Knights of Columbus or the Shriners; Labour Day is simply a day to shop or earn time-and-a-half.

Truth be told, it’s not surprising that most Canadians, and particularly the younger members of the working class, attach no significance to Labour Day. Canada’s dominant union model and its labour codes were built for the old economy. The union movement represents (quite successfully to be sure) workers in the big three sectors of the past: industrial/manufacturing, resource extraction and public service.

However, in today’s economy manufacturing and resource industries have been displaced and dwarfed by the technology and service sectors. Moreover, public service jobs are quickly evaporating as social programs are reduced or privatized. All this means union jobs are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Perhaps all this is nothing to be concerned about; perhaps the union movement has simply outlived its usefulness. But if the labour movement thinks otherwise–and Buzz Hargrove and Ken Georgetti insist it does–to remain an essential vehicle for protecting and enhancing the lives of working people and achieving a respectable level of economic equality it should know this: tomorrow’s workforce knows disgustingly little about its rights in the job place, nothing at all about how to start and operate a trade union, and has only a vague sense of Canada’s labour history. Add to this the fact that it is heading into an economy built on the contract, short-term and part-time job where unions are currently as nonexistent as Santa Claus.

Canada’s labour movement must reinvent itself to fit the new economy or it will become completely irrelevant–and Labour Day another gutted holiday.


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