President's Commentary: Labour Day 2012

This Labour Day in 2012, NUPGE celebrates the legacy of those who came before us and we commit to continue the fight for fairness.

Ottawa (30 Aug. 2012) - Welcome to Labour Day, the holiday that is so much a part of our culture that Canadians rarely pause to consider its true purpose and meaning. Today, Labour Day is more associated with a day off work, spending time with the kids, and enjoying good music and food, rather than with what it was meant to be - a heartfelt celebration of workers and the labour movement. That's too bad, but not surprising.

In a way, the holiday has become a victim of the labour movement's enduring success in fighting for fairness and improving the lives of all Canadians. The labour movement in Canada has always stood in solidarity with others to fight against poverty, income inequality, racism, sexism, child labour and the poor treatment of workers in other countries. Today, many Canadians take for granted things like the 40-hour work week, universal health care, public education, safe workplaces, unemployment insurance, public pensions, pay equity and minimum wage.

But it's important to remember that these rights and benefits weren’t simply handed out to people. Workers and their unions fought for them. They were long struggles. They faced bitter opposition and sneering attacks from the powerful and privileged. But they won these battles. They fought and won these things because they believed everyone should have a fair chance at living a good life.

As we reflect on this history, we should think about what it means in our current state of affairs. Indeed, the question on the minds of many Canadians today is: “Where’s the fairness?” That’s because, Canada has become, once again, a radically unfair country.

Corporate greed and wrong-headed public policies have fed a growing gap between the top 1% and everyone else. Canadians have been working harder and longer over the last three decades. As a result we’ve been baking a bigger economic pie. But not all the bakers have been getting bigger slices.

The wealthiest in Canada have been getting larger and larger slices of the economic pie while middle and lower income families have seen their slice shrink to a sliver. Most families, when you factor in inflation, are worse off today than they were in 1980. We’ve now reached levels of income inequality not seen since the 1920s. Most families are struggling harder than ever. They know something is wrong. They know the system is unfair. They want change.

So, on this Labour Day in 2012, NUPGE celebrates the legacy of those who came before us and we commit to continue the fight for fairness in five key areas:

  1. Wages: Workers need fair pay for a fair day’s work. One of the best tools they have to get a real raise is to join a union. The union wage advantage is over $5 an hour on average. Governments must recognize that labour rights are human rights and restore the freedom of workers to form unions and bargain collectively for better wages and benefits.
  2. Jobs: It’s unfair that millions of Canadians who want to work aren’t being given an opportunity to do so. Canada has an unacceptably high unemployment rate of 7%. For young people, the real unemployment rate, when you include under-employment, is over 20%. Governments must develop a modern industrial strategy. The strategy must put good jobs, people and nature at the heart of our economy. And it must recognize that labour, government and business all have a role in building a fair and sustainable economy.
  3. Tax fairness: Canadians are being told there’s not enough money to adequately fund public services they need like health care, education and social services. Meanwhile, these same governments have been spending billions on tax cuts for profitable corporations and wealthy corporate executives. Governments must collect more revenue from wealthy people and corporations who can afford to pay more. That would ensure everyone is paying their fair share. And it would help fund the public services and programs that make life more affordable and secure for families.
  4. Pensions: Every Canadian deserves retirement security. But 1.7 million retired seniors are living on the edge of poverty. And two-thirds of Canadians have no pension plan. Meanwhile, the Harper government is changing the rules to make Canadians work longer before they can get Old Age Security benefits. Governments must improve Canada Pension Plan benefits to ensure that every Canadian has an opportunity to retire with security and dignity.
  5. Public services, especially early learning and child care: Every kid should have an equal opportunity to get a head start in life. Parents need the security of knowing their children are safe while they are at work. But Canada has one of the lowest child care access rates in the industrialized world. Governments must create a national not-for-profit early learning and child care program to ensure, affordable, accessible, high-quality services for all. 

James Clancy
National President


James Clancy is the National President of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE