Labour Day. The last weekend of summer. In most parts of North America, the Labour Day Weekend marks the “real” end of summer and the return to life’s routine (not to mention Labour Day sales). Let’s call it the end of the spirit of summer, even if it’s not quite Sept. 21. School is starting again, with kids starting a new grade or even a new school. Colleges and universities are welcoming their new and returning students. Few of us can’t recall the anticipation of the first day of school each year, regardless of how long it’s been. Labour Day is really more like New Year’s than New Year’s because our lives revolve around school terms, even when we haven’t been in school for decades. It’s a time of new beginnings. This is when regularly scheduled activities resume, like choir practice, photography clubs, book clubs, bowling leagues, you name it. This is also a time when we get a chance to reset our routine. Maybe we’ll find a new course to enrol in or a new fitness class to try out or some new volunteer work. It’s a time of new beginnings, an opportunity to write a new script on the clean slate of the 2013-14 (school) year.
Most of us have pretty well forgotten the origins of Labour Day. Many of us may not even be aware of the fact that in both Canada and the U.S. Labour Day has been an official federal holiday for nearly 120 years. It was significant; in proclaiming this holiday the governments were recognizing the social and economic contributions of workers to the well-being of their nations. This holiday came into being at a time when the labour movement in both countries had been struggling mightily to gain workers’ rights. Things like reducing weekly hours worked from 65 hours to 54. Things like ensuring safe working conditions. Things like providing breaks during the work day. The things we take for granted now – in our countries – most of the time. We’ve come a long way. Now we watch similar struggles play out elsewhere.
Our Labour Day celebrations have morphed from a public acknowledgement of the contribution of workers to our prosperity to a public holiday acknowledging that summer has been divine but it’s time to get back to school. That’s a good thing insofar as this is largely a result of vast improvements in work conditions since Labour Day began in 1894. However, this is not to say that there isn’t room for continued recognition of the importance of a healthy, productive, and respected workforce in this day and age. Given the challenges in labour markets, especially with the high unemployment rate among young people, it strikes me that we should use part of the holiday to remind ourselves of the original intent of Labour Day.
Commerce is a complicated picture these days; it’s truly a global economy. In North America we’ve lost much of our manufacturing work to developing countries, which works well for the multinationals. They capture our business by marketing products at very low prices. We love buying goods at these low prices. After a while they don’t even seem low to us, they just seem like the price they should be. In fact, it would be great if they were even lower. We ignore the fact that we have priced ourselves out of manufacturing jobs by embracing getting something for (almost) nothing. In order to provide us with cheap goods, multinationals are moving from developing country to developing country, looking for places that have fewer and fewer protections for workers in place, enabling them to continue to sell us their cheap goods and still make a healthy profit. By clamouring for these cheap goods, we are supporting elsewhere the kind of work conditions the labour movement worked hard to eradicate 120 years ago, leading to recognition through the Labour Day holiday. I realize that those jobs are important to the economy of those developing countries; as I said, our global economy is a complicated picture.
We are living through a major economic transition, like the transition from the agricultural age to the industrial age. As must have been the case then, the end point of this transition is not defined and the path is not clear. And as must have been the case then, undoubtedly there will be winners and losers. But we need to have a public dialogue on how this can unfold, and not leave it to multinational companies whose motivation is solely their bottom line, while paying taxes in whichever low-tax country they can manage. We need to be clearer on the overall impact of paying less for goods but sending jobs offshore. We need to understand how public policy can more effectively support meaningful employment for our young people graduating from our schools, colleges and universities. We need to understand how public policy can more effectively support the private sector in job creation, because there is dignity in work. Everyone should have the opportunity to contribute to society to the best of their ability, and that includes having a job, a job that pays a living wage. Surely there is no more appropriate time to encourage this public discussion than on Labour Day.