A history lesson on Labour Day

Thom is grateful he wasn’t born in the 1800’s

Sometimes I marvel at what we have accomplished and created as a species.

Such was the case Monday as I contemplated writing about Labour Day.

It is a hazard of my profession, perhaps, that I can’t just gratefully take my stat holidays for granted, but it is very instructive to think deeply about what they mean.

Personally, I feel very lucky to have been born in the place and time I was.

It’s almost incredible today to recall that when the labour movement started to take off in Canada in March 1872, it was over a shorter work week.

In those days, Toronto print workers worked 11- to 12-hour shifts seven days a week and the Toronto Typographical Union demanded a nine-hour work day.

When the publishers refused, they walked off the job and Toronto Globe publisher George Brown had the strike committee arrested for criminal conspiracy.

A month later, Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald introduced the Trade Union Act, which legalized and protected unions.

This was probably not so much out of concern for workers as MacDonald’s rivalry with Brown, a reform politician.

MacDonald, of course, is also notorious for having conscripted Chinese labourers to build the Canadian Pacific Railway at $1 per day compared to other railway workers who earned $1.50 to $2.

In fact, throughout history, most of everything that has been built was done so on the backs of slave, or near-slave, workers.

In many parts of the world this is still true and although we made great strides in the industrialized West toward a more egalitarian society during the 20th century there has been erosion of those gains in more recent decades.

I’m not going to rehash all the data here. Suffice it to say, despite the average person being better off than previous generations, income inequality is at an all time high and growing.

The Conference Board of Canada suggests “high inequality can diminish economic growth if it means that the country is not fully using the skills and capabilities of all its citizens or if it undermines social cohesion, leading to increased social tensions. Second, high inequality raises a moral question about fairness and social justice.”

We can all see this already happening around us.

The irony here, is that the labour movement may be partially a victim of its own success. It has given us higher wages, better benefits, shorter work days and shorter work weeks.

These are all things we should feel pretty good about, but have perhaps led us to a point of complacency.

I feel like that is changing.

The emerging generation is finding its voice and that voice is screaming for social justice.

I hope they are successful, for our kids’ kids sake.

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