A Labour Day message by CAW National President Ken Lewenza: We Must Set Our Sights Higher

August 31, 2011, 3:25 PM EST

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Labour Day has always offered working Canadians a chance to step back and reflect on our collective achievements. Workplace safety rules. Decent wages and benefits. Work-life balance. Equality. Fairness. Even as a child, marching along Labour Day parade routes in Windsor with my mother and father, I've understood this day as a celebration of social progress and collective prosperity, amid the daily struggle for improved worker rights. And the progress we celebrated benefitted all working families - whether in a union or not.

There's no denying this mood has changed in past decades. The increasing hardships that workers face are turning more and more Canadians towards despair.

Today, many of the jobs on offer are unstable and insecure. Over 3 million Canadians are considered precariously employed, and rising. Employers continue to exploit outdated labour laws and in doing so have formed cracks in the foundation of our labour market and given rise to a growing field of unregulated temp jobs, short-term contract work and involuntary part-time jobs. These uncertain jobs are sprouting, like weeds, across the country.

Canada is a wealthy nation, that's for sure. Our national net worth tops $6 trillion (roughly $185,000 per capita) and rising, even as economic storm clouds loom. There's no secret these spoils are enjoyed by our most affluent citizens. In fact, real wages for millions of workers have essentially flat-lined since the mid 1970s, and the earnings gap in Canada is widening.

More recently with the global financial crisis, right wing politicians, business leaders and commentators, aided by the media have been extremely successful in making working people feel responsible for causing the damage. That somehow their ability to enjoy a stable retirement and earn a decent wage (even taking a vacation or two) is selfish.

Many have now lost sight of our need to build a stronger, more inclusive society. Why have we set our expectations so low it now seems not losing is the same as winning? And why have working people turned their anger inwards - buying into the perverse logic that somehow they are the enemy, instead of the power-brokers of our unfair, unsustainable, unbalanced and uncaring global economy?

Before his untimely death, federal NDP leader Jack Layton made an appeal to progressive voices in our nation, to choose love over hate, hope over fear and optimism over despair. And this touched a nerve as tens of thousands of Canadians responded en mass with messages of their own.

All Canadians should feel empowered to turn away from the negativity, fear and despair trumpeted by those who find themselves at odds with the greater good. The wealthy and business elite have convinced us to temper our ambitions, scale down our collective goals for a better world. They've told us that our desire to retire with a decent standard of living is too expensive, our plan for quality affordable child care unattainable, our strong public services unaffordable and that an end to poverty and homelessness is unrealistic.

None of this is true. It is only a matter of priorities.  

This Labour Day, let's strive to do better. Let's re-set our collective priorities higher than just maintaining the status quo. Let's not shy away from demanding more - from our employers and our politicians.

As we gather for Labour Day festivities and celebrate our historical accomplishments, let's once again embrace a more creative brand of public policy and a more principled politics - those same tools that enabled us to break ground on revolutionary programs like universal health care, the nine-hour work day, workplace democracy and unemployment insurance. And let's do it for the benefit of all, not a privileged few.

As progressives, let's believe once again in the possibility of our ideas - like universal child care, national Pharmacare, electoral fairness, full employment and good jobs, improved public pensions - all of which are well within our reach if we truly commit ourselves to realizing them.

This Labour Day, workers must not only celebrate previous achievements, but set our sights on an agenda for progress to bring about the more just, fair and caring society that so many of us crave.   

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