By Richard Cannings
Member of Parliament for South Okanagan-West Kootenay
On May Day we celebrate the people whose work makes modern civilization possible, from farm labourers to nurses, teachers to truck drivers, construction workers to miners and many, many more. In Canada, this May marks the 100th year anniversary of the Winnipeg general strike of 1919, a turning point in labour relations in our country.
The history of May Day is the history of workers obtaining rights from their employers; it’s the history of the labour movement and of unions. Employers did not give these rights away out of the goodness of their hearts, and unions came into being to ensure that working conditions were safe and that pay for that work was fair.
If you enjoy kicking back on the weekend, remember it was unions that fought for the five-day work week. If you like going home for dinner after work, remember it was unions that fought for the eight-hour work day. If you are forced to work overtime, but at least enjoy the extra pay it provides, remember it was unions that gave you that benefit. And when I say unions fought for these rights, many of these struggles involved physical clashes, injuries and even death.
There is a strong connection between these struggles and the riding of South Okanagan-West Kootenay that I represent. The miners of Rossland in particular played a key role in the fight for the eight-hour work day, bringing that demand to the provincial legislature and striking to reduce the work day from 10 to eight hours. It is even said that Joe Hill, legendary labour activist and singer, visited Rossland in the early 1900s to help advance these issues.
Some may think the days of significant labour struggles are over, that unions are obsolete. But just a quick glance at issues around the country and you can see this is not the case. Many young people are working in precarious jobs that provide no benefits at all other than low wages. And seniors are struggling as well.
I’ve talked to many seniors in the riding who are either living in poverty or still working at 80 years of age because they lost their pensions—years of deferred wages—when companies went bankrupt. This theft of pensions must stop—and could easily stop if the government fixed the bankruptcy law as the NDP has suggested.
Unions and other workers’ groups across the country have also been fighting Bill C-27, legislation tabled by Bill Morneau, the Minister of Finance. This bill would allow employers to retroactively change defined benefit pensions—that guarantee workers a set amount for their pension—with target benefit pensions that could provide much less. What he didn’t say when he tabled the legislation was that his family company is one of the only corporations that provide such pensions and that it would almost surely benefit from this measure at the expense of workers across Canada.
There are many benefits workers enjoy today that we accept without thinking of the hard work and advocacy of the labour movement that brought them into being.