Celebrating labour on Labour Day

Unions still have a role to play when it comes to workplace concerns

Celebrating labour on Labour Day

Every time it creeps up on me – Labour Day.

After a summer filled with patios and cottaging and long bike rides, it’s tough to accept Labour Day, which basically means the start of fall. Sure, September may have its warm days but we all know summer is coming to an end, school has begun yet again, and the days are getting shorter.

Labour Day, of course, started unofficially back in the late 1800s in Canada with the rise of labour movements and workers’ rights. But how many people mark it that way today?

The unions usually make a point to mark the day with the release of survey results or to present their stance on various political or employment issues such as pensions or minimum wage.

Every once in a while, I’ll see an article or hear a comment like “We don’t need unions anymore” or “Unions are just greedy these days.”

While I may tend to agree when it comes to union members complaining about a cut to their ample sick days or a defined benefit pension plan becoming a defined contribution one, I still think unions have a role to play when it comes to other workplace issues.

Take, for example, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) which has fought hard to help abused or oppressed workers coming to Canada through the government’s various immigration programs.

“Migrant workers continue to lack the basic rights and pathways to permanent residence that would afford them a better life in Canada,” says UFCW Canada national president Paul Meinema. “And, worryingly, our broken immigration system is now giving rise to an increase in human trafficking and labour exploitation among migrant communities.”

“UFCW has long believed that if you’re good enough to work in Canada, you’re good enough to stay, and it is time that our immigration and labour laws reflect that reality.”

Then there are unions such as International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada (ILWU) which is looking for answers, and assurances, when it comes to job security and automation.

“In spite of widespread disruption to many industries in our country, there has not been a single major change in workforce adjustment programs in Canada for 30 years, apart from actual cuts to the employment insurance program to further disqualify workers,” says Rob Ashton, president of ILWU.

“The next federal government needs to quickly establish retraining, job search and other programs to mitigate the economic harm that is done to workers and communities hit by employment loss of this scale.”

Issues around retirement plans are also being raised. For example, Stephen von Sychowski, president of the Vancouver & District Labour Council, says the federal government should prioritize retirement security by improving public pensions and protecting private pension plans when employers go bankrupt, according to an article in the Georgia Straight.

“Too often, workers lose their pension when their employer goes bankrupt. These workers paid into a pension plan in good faith over the course of their career, but are in line after wealthy shareholders and creditors for any remaining funds. There usually isn’t much left, if anything at all. We need to fix this and prioritize retirees when their employer goes bankrupt.”

Sexual harassment is also being addressed by unions such as the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). Not only are they looking to raise awareness, they’re pushing the government to change the rules, and filing grievances for members — and seeing results.

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), among others, has also fought to raise awareness about racism in the workplace, and discouraged discrimination. Earlier this year, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) published a report on the impact of Islamophobia in Canada, providing recommendations for employers, trade unions and government on how to address this “pernicious phenomenon.”

“Canada’s unions have a long and proud history of advocacy for human rights because discrimination and racism in our communities ultimately impacts on workers and their families,” said CLC president Hassan Yussuff.

“Islamophobia is one of many forms of racism that can poison workplaces but it often does so without stigma. We need to establish better measures to protect workers against individual and systemic discrimination.”

Climate change is even on the agenda for some, with the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU), for example, calling for sustainable health-care practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to raise public awareness about the serious health implication of climate change, and for government to create policies around the issue.

Love ’em or hate ’em, Canada’s unions are still a major force in 2019, and they have a big role to play, because clearly today’s workplace is nowhere near perfect and there are many challenges still to be overcome.

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