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Labour low-down

(September 7, 2000, Gazette)

By Kelley Power
Each September, we pack our tents, blankets, bug repellent and beer, scattering to cabins or campgrounds for the last long weekend of the summer.

But, while we may look forward to the Labour Day weekend, there is something inherently final about it that cannot be ignored; the summer is ending, the days are getting shorter and, most importantly, we can kiss the relative warmth of summer goodbye. Frankly, I find it depressing.

I decided that I needed a distraction, not to mention a topic for my very last column, and so did a little research about Labour Day and the labour movement in general.

Since most of us will probably have some contact with trade or labour unions over the course of our careers, it struck me as being important to understand how these organizations came about and how they operate in today’s society.

Perhaps some of the earliest examples of organized labour appeared in the form of merchant and craftsmen’s guilds. These associations flourished in Europe between the 11th and 16th centuries, but may have existed as early as ancient Roman times. They were formed to provide their members with mutual aid and protection, as well as to further their professional interests.

These associations are credited with creating stable economic bases and governments in the areas where they were active, as well as contributing to road, school and church construction.

However, internal politics, especially the division between wealthy and poor guild members and the hereditary nature of apprenticeships, eventually brought about the decline of these organizations.

The main difference between these guilds and the labour unions of today is that the guilds were designed to serve the interests of masters and workers, while the objective of the later organizations was to benefit workers alone.

Much of the motivation for the modern labour movement arose from working and living conditions during the Industrial Revolution. High on the list of priorities was the limitation of child labour and the shortening of the work day. Because Britain was the most industrially advanced country up to the mid-19th century, much of the ideals of the North American labour movement are based on earlier British initiatives.

In the U.S., the first signs of a widespread organized labour movement came in the early 1800s, although there was already some activity at the local level. Canada’s labour movement was a little slower coming. The Toronto Trades Assembly, the first citywide union, was not formed until 1871.

The labour movements in the two countries would eventually become closely intertwined. In fact, by the end of the 1880s, almost half of the organized workers in Canada were members in unions headquartered in the U.S.

Labour Day was first celebrated on Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City in the form of a demonstration and a picnic. However, there is evidence that the concept originated in Canada. Apparently, the Toronto Trades and Labour Council invited one of the founders of the American Federation of Labour to a similar event in July of 1882. Subsequently, this same gentleman announced a Labour Day celebration for September in the U.S. Sounds suspiciously like idea thievery to me.

Quebec’s labour history is unique in that the Roman Catholic church was the driving force behind labour organization, vigorously promoting it beginning around 1900. This was done in accordance with an 1891 papal decree that committed the Church to pursue the cause of social justice, especially in relation to problems stemming from the Industrial Revolution. The movement became secular after Second World War. In all of North America, that type of labour organization, confessional unionism, existed only in Quebec.

Between its inception and now, the Canadian labour movement has undergone several changes, some emerging from the depression of the 1930s, others originating in post-world war times or during the women’s movement.

Over time, issues of pay equity, job classification, collective bargaining, adjudication of grievances, etc. were addressed and employers adjusted. It’s fair to say that labour unions were unquestionably the primary force in developing the (predominantly) safe, just and healthy work conditions we enjoy today.

That’s a nice history lesson, but what about the position of labour organizations today?

I think it’s obvious that some unions may have lost sight of what the original labour movement was trying to accomplish. Leading a labour union today means power and money and, unfortunately, such things all too often corrupt.

There is no secret about the link between some labour leaders and mob figures. The States are rampant with such reports. And remember that some of these labour unions are international, meaning that they have ties to other countries, including Canada.

In some cases, membership is not optional, but required if a person wants to work in a particular trade or establishment. More than one unionized worker I’ve talked to resents this policy and finds the organization of labour a practice which has outlived its usefulness.

I’d have to say that I would never consider unions totally unnecessary. After all, they act to safeguard what has already been achieved for labourers, ensuring that employers cannot ignore the needs of their employees. As well, they do much to further the cause of equal rights for male and female labourers of all races and sexual orientations.

Maybe there just needs to be a redefinition of organized labour’s priorities and objectives. We are, after all, living in the 21st century; with about 150 having passed since their inception, it is completely credible that unions would be in need of an overhaul.

As for Labour Day, it stands as a celebration of working people and recognizes the work of those who engineered the original labour movement. Any controversy over labour unions should not detract from that. So, enjoy your Labour Day weekends; if you’ve ever been paid a wage, you’ve earned the right.