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Focus on a more progressive agenda

Employers continue to exploit outdated labour laws, which is cracking the foundation of our labour market and giving rise to unregulated temp jobs, short-term contract work and involuntary part-time jobs.


November 4, 2011
by Ken Lewenza

Labour Day has always offered working Canadians a chance to step back and reflect on collective achievements. Workplace safety rules. Decent wages and benefits. Work-life balance. Equality. And fairness. Even as a child marching with my parents along Labour Day parade routes in Windsor, Ont., I understood the day to be a celebration of social progress and collective prosperity for all – including non-union families – amid the daily struggle for improved worker rights. The mood has changed over the passing decades with growing hardships turning more Canadians towards despair.

Many of the jobs offered today are unstable and insecure. More than 3 million Canadians are considered precariously employed, and the number is rising. Employers continue to exploit outdated labour laws, which is cracking the foundation of our labour market and giving rise to unregulated temp jobs, short-term contract work and involuntary part-time jobs.

Canada is certainly a wealthy nation. With a national net worth topping $6 trillion (roughly $185,000 per capita) and it’s rising – even as economic storm clouds loom – it’s not a secret the bulk of these spoils is enjoyed by our most affluent citizens. In fact, for millions of workers real wages have flat-lined since the mid 1970s and the earnings gap is widening.

Through the global financial crisis, right-wing politicians, business leaders and commentators aided by the media have successfully made 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 working people have now lost sight of the need to build a stronger, more inclusive society. Why are their expectations so low that it now seems not losing is the same as winning? And why have they turned their anger inwards – buying into the perverse logic that they are the enemy, rather than the power brokers of an unfair, unsustainable, unbalanced and uncaring global economy?

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

A matter of priorities
The wealthy and business elite have convinced us to temper our ambitions and scale down our collective goals for a better world. They’ve told us 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; rather, it’s only a matter of priorities.

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

The time has come to embrace a more creative brand of public policy and more principled politics – the same tools that enabled us to break ground on revolutionary programs such as universal health care, the nine-hour workday, workplace democracy and unemployment insurance. And let’s do it for the benefit of all, not a privileged few.
As progressives, trade union members must place their belief in the possibility of our ideas – such as universal child care, national pharmacare, electoral fairness, full employment, good jobs and improved public pensions – all of which are well within our reach if we truly commit ourselves to realizing them.

As we celebrate previous achievements, let’s set our sights on an agenda for progress to bring about the more just, fair and caring society so many of us crave.

Ken Lewenza is the president of the Canadian Auto Workers union, which represents 225,000 workers across the country in 17 different sectors of the economy. E-mail cawcomm@caw.ca.