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Labour Day, a public holiday

labour-day-2011Labour Day originated in the labour union movements of the 1800s as a way to celebrate social and economic advancements and pay tribute to the driving force of our economy. The first unofficial “labour days” in Canada were actually protests against a law that made it a crime to be a member of a union. In 1872, this law was abolished, but various union protests and parades continued, and there was pressure to make Labour Day a national holiday. In 1894, the federal government did just that, formally recognizing workers across the country.

Unions and their members have made positive differences in the lives of Canadian working families and their communities by fighting for, and winning, numerous rights and benefits that employees enjoy today. These include public health care, public education, minimum wages (and increases), human and civil rights, occupational health and safety, better employment conditions, employment insurance, pension plans and medical coverage.

What does Labour Day mean in the 21st century?

Since the workplace is very different from that of the 1800s—we are living in a new economy, powered by technology, fueled by information and driven by knowledge—many are questioning the relevancy of the labour movement in the 21st century. They say the traditional labour movement requires a revamp to meet the challenges of a globalized, informatised and technologically inclined society.

The Toronto and York Region Labour Council notes in its Action Agenda:

Canada’s labour movement needs to have a frank and detailed discussion about what it will take to build power in the 21st century.

Writing in Our Times, a Canadian labour magazine, Professor Pradeep Kumar of Queen’s University says:

The labour movement has been facing a new environment, one that includes mass plant closures and the relentless privatization of public assets and services, with global warming as a backdrop, threatening to deprive much of humankind of a secure future.

Professor Kumar asks:

Is the union movement in Canada getting stagnant in the face of these challenges? To answer that question we need to move beyond perceptions [that the union movement in Canada is at a standstill] and, instead, focus on assessing tangible evidence regarding union efforts and outcomes.

According to the labour council, unions in Canada have adjusted relatively well to the new environment, and union membership levels have been stable or have risen slightly. To some, however, that is an illusion; even as the number of Canadian union members has grown, membership as a proportion of the workforce (union density) has been steadily declining for more than two decades. The decline has been most pronounced in the private sector, the source of employment for over three-quarters of Canadians.

Based on Statistics Canada numbers, union membership between 1997 and 2007 actually increased 19 percent, or by 660,000, the largest increase since the 1970s. However, total employment grew faster than union membership, rising by 23 percent over the same period. Nearly three-quarters of the membership growth over the 1997–2007 period is accounted for by the public sector. Thus, union density declined despite the impressive membership growth. The continuing losses in the private sector and male unionization rates were most noticeable.

What do these membership and density trends and patterns indicate about the overall health of the labour movement in Canada?

Increased union membership, albeit very small, in private services (such as retail trade, financial services and accommodation and food services), small workplaces, and among women, part-time, non-permanent workers and new hires is an encouraging sign, demonstrating that unions are beginning to pay attention to organizing the vast potential of unorganized non-traditional workers.

However, this increase is not enough to stop the gradual erosion of union density. Overall the data appear to portray a picture of a stagnant labour movement with declining density in a wide range of areas (particularly in private service industries with expanding employment), and with a false sense of security created by continuing strength in the public sector.

What must the labour movement do to ensure its survival?

According to Professor Kumar:

Organizing the unorganized workers is critical to the survival of the labour movement. It is particularly important in the current environment where employment in non-union workplaces is growing faster than in unionized workplaces, and unions find themselves running just to stay in the same place. Increased organizing is required just to keep density constant, let alone to grow.

However, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada has found that only about one-half of unions—mostly large unions—consider organizing a priority. Fewer than one-half have a person exclusively responsible for organizing, or have specific organizing targets. The survey found that unions give more importance to organizing public/semi-public services where they are already strong and where employer opposition is less intense, rather than private services, which are difficult to organize.

Despite the following stats, unions continue to protect the rights of workers (their members) by counterbalancing the power of employers and working toward further employment improvements.

Wage inequalities between men and women, immigrants and permanant workers continue to be an issue in the 21st century. A growing number of workers still find themselves working in low-wage jobs with few benefits. Surprise corporate closures are still leaving workers without final paycheques and termination notice as well as jobs. (See the recent IQT case, among many others.)

Workers are continually fighting to keep the rights and benefits (pensions, annual salary increases and benefits) for which they have fought for so many years, as illustrated by the recent Canada Post and Air Canada strikes.

So to answer the question many are asking: have unions outlived their usefulness?

In my opinion no; there is still work the labour movement needs to do. However, they may need some reorganizing themselves before they can do it.

That said..!

Labour Day in Canada is celebrated with a variety of events, festivals, parades and end of summer beach picnics. This year Labour Day lands on Monday September 5, 2011. Employees get a day off with regular pay or public holiday pay (depending on the province or territory of employment). If the employee is required to work on the holiday, the employee must be paid regular wages and get a substituted day off with pay at a later date (depending on the province or territory). For specific requirements for your jurisdiction, consult the Library section of HRinfodesk.

Happy Labour Day to all Canadian workers, and workers around the world!

Yosie Saint-Cyr
First Reference Inc. Human Resources and Compliance Managing Editor

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Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B. Managing Editor

Managing Editor at First Reference Inc.
Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., is a trained lawyer called to the Quebec bar in 1988 and is still a member in good standing. She practiced business, employment and labour law until 1999. For over 18 years, Yosie has been the Managing Editor of the following publications, Human Resources Advisor, Human Resources PolicyPro, HRinfodesk and Accessibility Standards PolicyPro from First Reference. Yosie is one of Canada’s best known and most respected HR authors, with an extensive background in employment and labour across the country. Read more
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One thought on “Labour Day, a public holiday
  • Yosie,

    Great post. I think it is very important for every person to keep in mind and never take for granted the reasons for the labour movement.

    Sure, unions may need to constantly evolve to stay relevant, but they will continue to have a special function in the employment sphere. Today’s workers (whether they are unionized or not) should never forget that they have the quality of life they have thanks to unions.