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  • Volume Eight, Number Five: July 2003

    It’s Labour Day. Time for a Re-think of Where We’re Headed, and To Stand Up and Change It

    Jim Sinclair, President, B.C. Federation of Labour

    Once a year we set aside a day to celebrate the contribution that unions make in our workplaces and communities. It’s called Labour Day and it’s a reminder that unions make all the difference.

    Think about it for a minute. The eight-hour day, pension plans, the abolition of child labour, pay equity, universally accessible public healthcare and education; these are just some of the contributions credited to the determination of union activists.

    It would be an understatement to say these gains did not come easily. Each one involved intense campaigns in both the community and the workplace, often stretching over many decades.

    Many involved mobilizing pressure both at the bargaining table and on politicians. It wasn’t enough that improvements were secured for a few. The labour movement’s real successes have always come from sharing the gains with a broader community through better laws and higher public standards.

    Looking back, it’s obvious that these struggles never moved forward in a straight line. Major breakthroughs in one decade often became the focus of the attack in the next. To paraphrase an old union activist, “working people never won anything without a fight and they never held on to it without continuing to fight.”

    Scanning the situation in BC today, it’s clear that we have our hands full trying to keep the line moving forward. Despite promises of “hope and prosperity,” the current government in Victoria has overseen a steady rise in unemployment, a bloating of provincial debt and a squandering of billions on a tax-cut strategy that has rewarded a few at the expense of us all.

    BC’s unemployed now number close to 200,000; 8.7 per cent of the workforce can’t find work, up from 6.7 per cent when the BC Liberals took office in May 2001. Smaller communities, especially those in the Central and Northern Interior regions, are struggling with unemployment rates often double those in urban centres.

    The BC Liberals’ main economic strategy, tax cuts, has proven to be a complete bust. BC’s economic growth continues to under-perform the rest of Canada and is miles off the original course set by Finance Minister Gary Collins when he detailed the tax cut strategy in July 2001.

    BC’s working families have paid the price for tax cuts with dramatic cuts in public programs, hefty increases in user fees and regressive taxes and greatly diminished access to critical services in health and education.

    Making matters worse, the Social Planning and Research Council of BC predicts that child and family poverty in BC will increase in the coming years because of the provincial government’s failure to decrease unemployment and protect the services and benefits to low-income families. The SPARC report also notes that BC Liberal policies such as lower employment standards, less access to union representation and a greater emphasis on part-time, contingent work will further erode family incomes, forcing even more into poverty.

    The shift in political direction has been matched by an equally hard edge approach in BC’s employer community. At negotiating tables around the province, the employer’s demand for concession is pervasive. Public or private sector, resource or service industries, large company or small, the demand for rollbacks in benefits, wages and employment security is constant.

    There are limits, of course, to how far the concession demand is pushed. A recent survey by Business in Vancouver of BC’s top 100 publicly-traded companies shows that Chief Executive Officers managed to squeeze a 36 per cent increase in their salary last year, compared to 3.6 per cent for the average employee in the province. According to the survey the number of CEOs earning a million dollars or more doubled between 2001 and 2002.

    And you wonder why workers balk when managers or politicians say we have to do more with less.

    Adversity is nothing new to our movement. We’ve faced tough odds before and prevailed. Just ask the folks in Kamloops who stared down Premier Campbell’s plans to privatize the Coquihalla. Or ask activists and seniors in Revelstoke who have rallied to save their long-term care facility, Moberley Manor, from a similar fate. Or ask workers and rail communities from North Vancouver to Fort Nelson who are prepared to tough it out to stop the sell-off of BC Rail.

    The answer you get is the same one you will hear at Labour Day picnics around the province. Workers standing together with their communities are a powerful force. We make a real difference.

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