Aug 29, 2016

Labour Day: a time to reflect on progress for workers—and the need for action

Every year, as Labour Day draws near I have mixed feelings, probably like many of you. On the one hand, Labour Day is for many the culmination of summer, with big camping trips or barbecues planned—let’s get together and celebrate summer one last time! On the other hand, in many ways it marks the end of summer and brings on that gloomy feeling many of us had as kids as September rolls around—oh no, it’s time to go back to school.

But as a long-time activist in the labour movement, I also have mixed feelings about Labour Day because the original meaning of this day has by and large been lost. A day originally made a statutory holiday to honour and acknowledge the contributions and sacrifices working people made to advance rights and working conditions for each other has gradually morphed into just one more commercialized long weekend. An opportunity to buy that cheap furniture set, or to buy those things you didn’t know you needed until the ad came on TV.

In today’s society, where folks have to work so much harder and longer to achieve what their parents did just 20 years ago, it’s understandable that people are squeezed for time. And it’s completely understandable that many people today probably don’t understand the original point of observing Labour Day.

Don’t get me wrong: Labour Day long weekend should be a fun time to get together with friends and family to celebrate the things that are important to us. 

But as we mark the end of summer, and acknowledge that the days are getting shorter and cooler, let’s also spend some time thinking about how we can build on the gains made by previous generations that allow us the freedoms and rights we have today. 

I think the best way to honour the work and struggle that came before us is to do everything we can to ensure that new workers, and generations of workers yet to come, enjoy the same rights and protections as we do.

The labour movement has never said, “ok, that’s enough progress, we can stop.” And we never should. While much has been accomplished, there is so much more to do.

When B.C.’s economy is “number one” in the country but we still have one of the highest rates of child poverty, it’s clear that our work is not done.

When hundreds of schools are closed across the province while millionaires get another tax break, we know our work is not done.

When our government puts all our economic eggs in the mega-project basket and then brings in temporary foreign workers with no path to citizenship, our work is not done.

And when post-secondary training and education—and the opportunities to succeed that come with it—is priced out of reach for the majority of British Columbians, our work is not done.

It’s only by boldly demanding change—and fighting for it—that we make progress. The labour movement has done that for generations, and made positive, progressive change for millions of workers, unionized and not. It’s time to ramp up our efforts in our workplaces, in our communities and at the ballot box.

We are fortunate to live and work in such a beautiful place. In so many respects, British Columbia and Canada are the envy of the world. But that doesn’t mean we can stand still. So this Labour Day, let’s enjoy ourselves and celebrate the progress we’ve made. And then, let’s work together to make this an even better place—for all of us, not just the privileged elites.

Paul Faoro is president of CUPE BC, British Columbia’s largest union, representing 85,000 workers delivering important public services in communities across the province.

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