Most Canadians have entered 2016 with a sense of optimism -- rid of the Harper nastiness, they're ready for the "sunny days" of a Liberal government still in its honeymoon and should be rightly proud of the role played by our representatives at the COP21 Climate Summit in Paris.
At the same time, the economic picture is less certain. Canada's labour movement will continue fighting the corporate austerity agenda, as well as defending jobs and public assets. But in 2016, labour is also positioned to lead on key issues that matter to all Canadians: workplace justice, climate action and equity.
One of the most exciting campaigns in the last year was the fight for $15 and Fairness. Driven by community-labour coalitions across North America, the actions drew attention to the dramatic rise of income inequality and increase in precarious work.
More people now see that the economy will fail the next generation unless current trends are turned around. In Ontario, the ongoing Changing Workplace Review offers an opportunity to make reforms to the laws that govern the world of work.
Labour is gearing up to take on this challenge because people's incomes and working conditions have always been determined by how strong unions are in each sector, and in society as a whole. When more people have access to unionization there is less poverty and more respect at work.
Employment standards have to be significantly updated and enforced to address the exploitation that is so prevalent in today's job market. If the Wynne government is serious about tackling inequality, the Changing Workplace Review will usher in significant improvements to workers' rights. That will be a massive victory for all Canadians, but particularly for the next generation.
Then there is the hard truth of the slogan, "There are no jobs on a dead planet." The COP21 negotiations in Paris saw the world's leaders come together and reach a remarkable consensus on the urgency of climate change. Our politicians pledged to come home and pursue aggressive measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
There will be a huge opening for new ideas, as well as an intense struggle for sustainability that includes good jobs for all. Because our members are on the front lines, we can lay out a plan for every sector of the economy. We can partner with politicians and civil society to frame a vision that includes both equity and just transition. We can replicate the model of Community Benefits Agreements, incorporating jobs for racialized youth on public mega-projects.
Ontario Minister of Environment and Climate Change Glen Murray has set very ambitious goals for carbon reduction. Labour can be a key ally in the both the public discourse and the delivery of programs needed to support these goals.
The difficult issues of race and prejudice that have dominated headlines in the last year create both a crisis and an opportunity. I am proud of the principled response to Islamophobia by Canada's labour movement as we stood side-by-side with our Muslim neighbours.
But as the Black Lives Matter and Aboriginal movements show, so much more needs to be done to challenge the systemic racism that underpins our world. Politicians, employers and community leaders must all step up to the plate.
In the fall of 2014, Labour Council published a Leaders Guide to Equity to help our affiliates undertake this work. Racial justice goes farther than diversity and inclusion to demand a true practice of equity in workplaces and society.
Half of Toronto's population was born outside of Canada. Many whose first language is not English often do not feel welcome in the existing structures they find. One new initiative has been the creation of Diverse Workers Networks led by union activists from different communities -- Chinese, Filipino, Tamil, Somali and Ethiopian/Eritrean.
They have reached out to provide education on workers' rights, help people join unions and mobilize on pressing social issues. They give members the confidence to be more engaged and provide leadership within their own unions and communities.
Tackling these issues brings up the question of how relevant unions are in a changing world. The successful fight labour undertook to stop Tim Hudak from bringing so-called "right to work" laws to Ontario was actually crucial for the economic health of the province. It also renewed the dialogue with union members about the role of their unions in the both the workplace and society.
As corporate globalization undermines the standard of living of working families, workers will re-discover the value of grassroots organizing and collective representation. In the process, a whole new generation of diverse, talented leaders will come to the fore.
History shows that working people need to be in motion in order to discover their power. More often than not, those mass movements break rules and make the elites uncomfortable.
Seven generations ago -- in 1871 -- workers came together to create a collective voice in Toronto to bargain a better deal with those who ruled society. They challenged laws, changed politics and built a movement that has benefited everyone who came after them. In 2016, I am confident that we will continue that legacy of working for social and economic justice for all.
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Without trade unions promoting the aim of a 40-hour work week, there would have been no pressure on employers to limit the amount of time employees spend working. While of course employees are free to choose how long they spend working, trade unions worked to ensure this was the choice of a worker, not their boss. The movement for an 8-hour work day peaked at the turn of the 20th century, just before the First World War. And more recent moves towards re-imagining the working day have seen big businesses use technology to limit after-hours email traffic. Arguably such ideas are borne out of trade union campaigning more than a century ago.
While European rules introduced the basic legal right to paid-for annual leave, it is the trade unions which fought for enhanced entitlements over and above the basic EU provision. Since the early 2000s, the Trades Union Congress has fought for increases to the amount of leave, which is now the equivalent of 5.6 working weeks (PDF).
Before the Employers and Workmen Act 1875, workers were the only ones who could be sued for breach of an employment contract. The increased organisation of trade unions and the Great Reform Act prompted both Tory and Liberal governments of the time to take a renewed interest in employment laws. Ultimately this brought about greater parity in the relationship between employer and employee.
Trade unions were instrumental in lobbying government for the provision of leave for new parents - at workers' own discretion. In 1998, the Trades Union Congress launched a campaign to ensure that proposed parental leave would be flexible and well promoted to employees.
Cases of discrimination aren't uncommon, but they'd be a lot more if it weren't for trade unions. As the European Commission says: "Trade unions play a primary role in fighting against discrimination through a variety of actions and tools". They negotiate with employers, support victims, and monitor discrimination cases - keeping up-to-date with the latest case law so that we don't have to.
Although trade unions had reservations about the effect of a national minimum wage, they declared their support for the policy in the mid-1980s. By the 1990s, scholarly evidence caught up with the unions - arguing that a minimum wage would not reduce adult-age employment (PDF). And through the Labour Party, trade unions were able to influence policy in government after the 1997 election.
In the 1840s, unions that were highly centralised and which employed full-time officers brought about negotiation and arbitration as their preferred method of achieving a good deal for their members. This had a significant effect in improving worker/industrialist relations, and while not always successful, they fundamentally changed workplace relationships for the better.
In the 1830s, a Chartist movement was organised around 6 clear principles - and mobilised mass support for its aims through petitions. Just like trade unions, the Chartists' relied on collective aims amongst like-minded people - most visible in the form of three 'monster' petitions presented to Parliament. These contained millions of signatures and proved a desire amongst workers for improved working conditions.
The history of the working week lies in industrial practices, and in Britain factories operated 6 days a week to maintain efficiencies of scale. Sundays were always the day of rest. But trade unions fought to secure the Saturday for workers, too. And now the Monday-to-Friday work week is accepted across industries, as the LSE notes.
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