As workers from across North America gather to celebrate the victories of the past, they do so under an unprecedented cloud of uncertainty. The financial crisis of 2008 that lead to massive job losses and the worst recession since the Great Depression is bringing out the worst in employers in both the private and public sectors.
The attacks on past gains in wages, benefits, pensions, hours of work and working conditions are unprecedented in my lifetime. The demands of employers at the bargaining table have changed the nature of collective bargaining from the traditional idea of gains for working people through bargaining to forcing unions to buy into the employer agenda of lower standards. From the drive for two and three tier wages in the auto sector to elimination of defined pension benefit plans in most sectors of the economy, have unions on the defensive including being forced to convince their members that this is the only way to save and or create new jobs.
The employer demands for more flexibility translates into more casual, more part-time and no job security for workers in both the private and public sectors. The efforts to fight back against this anti-worker agenda has had limited success. The reason for this is the lack of national and international coordination and response on behalf of North America's central labour bodies.
Individual affiliates have taken on the fight in auto, at the post office, in mining, steel and the airline industry. Currently the steel workers union in Hamilton are approaching one year on the picket line fighting concessions after being locked out by U.S. Steel.
As I write this article, the support staff at community colleges across Ontario are on strike in an effort to stop management from eliminating full-time jobs with good wages, benefits and pension while replacing them with more part-time and casual workers at low wages, limited benefits and no job security. The response of organized labour must be to come together and demand an end to the undermining of the middle class in North America.
The fight has to be led by the Canadian Labour Congress, the Federations of Labour, as well as the AFL-CIO and State Federations of Labour in the U.S.. When the celebratory parades of 2011 are over, organized labour must recognize that celebrating past gains that are being eroded at a record pace is not an appropriate response in today's environment. Labour must move from the 2011 Labour Day parade celebrations to marching in the streets demanding full-time jobs with fair wages, pensions and benefits and working conditions.
At a time of record profits for corporations coupled with executive's obscene salaries, bonuses, stock options and pensions, workers are entitled to improve the standard of living for themselves, their families and their communities. Re-establishing the relevance of unions in today's environment will not be easy or without sacrifice. Neither was the fight by our grandparents and parents to establish the right to form unions and bargain collectively.