So we’re heading into the long weekend, and I’m feeling a little whimsical and very tired. I suppose I should be penning a long, ponderous piece about Labour Day, but there’ll be enough of those articles elsewhere.
Well, OK, a couple of things, if you insist. The origin of Labour Day in Canada was in 1872, when some leaders of the Toronto Typographical Union were arrested for “conspiracy” after a 10,000-strong labour march through the streets to Queen’s Park supporting the TTU’s demand for a 58-hour week. It just so happened that the employer in this case was George Brown, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s hated political rival. But we mustn’t attribute motives. MacDonald repealed what he called “barbarous” anti-union laws in June of that year by passing the Trade Union Act that legalized unions.
(Now, that’s one Conservative I can get behind. Sir John, here are a couple of men I’d like you to meet.)
It was another, less well-known Canadian Prime Minister, Prime Minister John Thompson, who actually made Labour Day an official holiday in 1894, after years of annual marches. In my old stomping ground of Winnipeg, on that first official Labour Day, there was a parade extending 5 kilometres.
Anyway, enough history, and on to the present.
Last evening, I arrived in Vancouver to join our members at the Vancouver International Airport: a strike was looming, now thankfully averted with a last-minute tentative agreement. (Way to go, bargaining team!) Earlier, when I was in Winnipeg, I’d been checking the media about possible weekend disruptions there. Obviously I had some inside knowledge, but nevertheless, it’s always good to see ourselves as others see us. So I went to the CBC website, and this is what I found.
Everything about this story was irritating. First, there was no mention whatsoever of the actual issues involved, which is a bit like covering a mass demonstration but forgetting to tell people what people were actually demonstrating about. Then there were the comments. The negative assumptions were everywhere: greedy unions wanting more (in fact, the group was fighting employer concessions), how this disruption would lose these “goons” public sympathy, and how a strike wouldn’t cause disruptions because anybody could do their jobs.
Yes, there’s some contradiction there, all right. It’s like people complaining about immigrants because “they’re all on welfare and taking our jobs.” In any case, this news story raised a sore point with me that I’d like to get off my chest before the festivities begin. It takes two to tango, as they say. So what is it about so called “labour disputes” (why are they never called “employer disputes?”) that makes members of the public so quick to assign blame without—like the CBC reporter—even bothering to ask what it’s all about in the first place?
In a way, we’re getting a back-handed compliment. Everyone benefits from the work that union members do. So it’s natural that people don’t want that work to stop. This is a pretty strong testimonial to the value of our labour, in fact, but it does get in the way sometimes.
If nobody missed our work, then what good would a strike be? But let’s back up. A strike is a weapon of last resort—the vast majority of contract negotiations are settled without one. When they do happen, there’s not much joy on either side. Being on strike is hard slogging, and it’s not well-remunerated.
The public may indeed be “held hostage,” as the media and commenters never tire of saying, but not by folks forced out on strike when they’d far rather be working. Concession bargaining is the norm these days: far from wanting to grab more, unions and their members are spending most of their bargaining time fighting to keep what we have. Who wouldn’t?
But how do we get that message across? Well, we keep campaigning, and talking to any media who will listen, and putting the issues out there as best we might. But whatever message we can manage to push through the dense filter of the mainstream media will never be enough to convince anyone of anything. It’s no surprise, at least to me, that almost every newspaper in Canada endorsed Stephen Harper in the 2011 election. They’re an unreliable megaphone when the union voice wants to be heard.
Word of mouth, as in union organizing, is always the most effective means of communicating. Rank-and-file workers need to keep telling their own stories to other workers, friends, family and neighbours. And Labour Day marches are a proud tradition: they’re a way of showing the union banner, but they’re also a celebration of workers themselves, and that’s you—your lives, your sacrifices, and the work that you do.
So, enjoy the weekend, everyone, and just kick back. You’ve earned it. In fact, your predecessors were the ones who helped to make the whole thing possible. Kinda makes you proud, doesn’t it?