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Labour Day: Solidarity Forever!

in Holding the Line by

It seems so long ago when, in 1872, Toronto printers took to the streets in search of better working conditions from their boss. Unions weren’t even legal back then, but their actions inspired other workers to join them in support — and 10,000 of them marched to the Ontario legislature with a united goal of making change happen. And it worked!

As a direct result of this action, Labour Day became an official statutory holiday in 1894.

Even before that, here in Newfoundland and Labrador, records show that in the1830s and ‘40s thousands of sealers marched in protest each spring against brutally harsh and unsafe working conditions. These workers understood the power of worker solidarity and the political strength of coming together in a common struggle. The Retail Clerks Union—formed in 1868, and the first Newfoundland union to have women members—was a union of city workers coming together to demand better working conditions from employers and better legislation to protect their rights.

Workers’ rights through political action

Workers understand that rights are never given. They are won through collective action and struggle, and that direct political action is a necessary part of the work of the labour movement.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour brings together many of the province’s unions to engage in the political bargaining process. We continue to advocate for stronger laws and social policy that create the kind of society we desire for everyone.

Anyone who believes that unions have outlived their usefulness need only look back over past gains made by unions which benefit all workers — from the 40-hour work week, decent wages and benefits, working conditions, pensions, paid vacation, health and safety laws, maternity and parental leave, to programs and laws like Unemployment Insurance, Medicare, the Canada Pension Program, employment standards, minimum wage laws, employment and pay equity, collective bargaining rights, same sex rights, and human rights laws. These were all won when workers—through their unions—spoke out for marginalized voices. We know only too well that these gains are so easily lost with the stroke of the legislator’s pen.

Workers find many ways to celebrate the last long weekend of the summer—and celebrate we must! Unions have added much to our economy. Better wages earned means more money is spent in our communities. Ensuring that laws exist to protect people on the job keeps our citizens safe and healthy and creates a better world for all of us.

Political challenges require collective responses

Without a doubt, workers and their unions are facing the fight of their lives in this upcoming federal election. Never before has a government been so blatantly intent on destroying what so many before us have built — the social fabric of our society, the rights of people who do not own enormous wealth or power but produce wealth for those who want to weaken us.

Inequality exists between the wealthy and the rest of us, between the sexes, and for our most vulnerable workers and citizens.

According to numerous research studies produced by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, conditions have drastically improved for Canada’s wealthiest, but not so for workers.

In fact, the top 10 per cent of income earners have seen a doubling of their wealth. In most cases, that means they’re worth a million dollars more today than they were a decade ago.

 Despite all the proven benefits of unions to our society and our economy, workers in Canada have seen a serious erosion of their fundamental right to organize into a union and engage in full and free collective bargaining.

Sadly, women continue to bring home 20 per cent less than the men who work beside them. Aboriginal, racialized and immigrant women take home even less. Aboriginal, racialized and immigrant men earn less than their white male counterparts. Young workers are also vulnerable and disproportionately impacted in the labour market.

Under the current federal government, our health care is under threat, seniors are increasingly living in poverty, child care is unaffordable and inaccessible for many families, wages are stagnant, working families are debt-ridden and struggling to survive, advocacy groups have been silenced, scientists and statisticians have been banished, and there has been a massive attempt to weaken and ultimately destroy unions, who, by all reports, are a major source of greater equality in society.

A recent report written by Andrew Jackson at The Broadbent Institute argues that unions play a major role in making Canada a more equal and democratic society, and that a strong labour movement benefits all Canadians.

Despite all the proven benefits of unions to our society and our economy, workers in Canada have seen a serious erosion of their fundamental right to organize into a union and engage in full and free collective bargaining.

Both our federal and provincial governments have passed numerous laws that have restricted, suspended or denied these rights. They have voted down opposition party bills to improve minimum wage increases and other motions designed to improve the lives of all workers.

When our economy deteriorates, government’s response has been to cut workers from the public sector, turn over our public services to the private sector to put profit before people, and blame workers rather than make the rich and corporations pay their fair share.

When unions step up to the plate, government’s response has been to take away their rights!

“When the unions’ inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run, there can be no greater power anywhere beneath the sun…” (Solidarity Forever by Ralph Chaplin)

Unions and their organizations have no choice — we have to fight back. We have an obligation to stand up for the people of our province and country who make our economy work. To do any less would be to accept the government’s belief that we do not matter.

On this day, we pledge to continue to represent our members and their families and those who have no voice by continuing to engage in political action aimed at electing politicians and political parties that support our issues and advocate for more dignity, fairness and equality.

On Labour Day we honour all workers in our province, for without their toil not a single penny would be made. We pay tribute to our 65,000 unionized sisters and brothers of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour who work and live in every single community in our vast province.

We remember past labour leaders who paved the way by demanding that workers have the right to join a union and bargain a collective agreement.

We pledge to do whatever we can to protect our gains so that our children and their children can enjoy a decent standard of living.

And we know through history, both ancient and recent, that change is not only possible — it’s inevitable!

What better way to celebrate our day!

As Ralph Chaplin’s famous union anthem proclaims, “For what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one? The union makes us strong!”

Solidarity forever!

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