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
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.