09/05/2011 01:06 EDT | Updated 11/05/2011 05:12 EDT

Ken Georgetti, Head Of Canadian Labour Congress, Says Fighting Budget Cuts The Top Priority

HALIFAX - Staving off deep job cuts and protecting workers' rights will be the main battlefronts for labour groups in the coming months, union leaders said Monday as they gear up for widespread losses in the public sector.

At Labour Day rallies across the country, labour leaders hammered the federal government for ordering postal and airline employees back to work, and pledging to balance the budget likely through job losses.

Ken Georgetti, head of the Canadian Labour Congress, said Ottawa's plan to balance the books by 2014 will likely result in thousands of job losses at a time of already high unemployment and generous corporate tax cuts.

"Putting more people on the unemployment lines doesn't make any sense," he said during a rally in Halifax, adding that creating and protecting jobs are labour's priorities.

"These tax cuts haven't worked and public servants shouldn't have to pay for them with their jobs."

Several hundred people cheered on Georgetti and a string of Nova Scotia labour leaders as they led a march through the city on a breezy but sunny afternoon.

Mothers pushing strollers, university professors waving banners and people in wheelchairs chanted anti-government slogans as they made their way to a city park for a barbecue, speeches and music.

Overshadowing many of the gatherings was the memory of Jack Layton, the late NDP leader who died of cancer last month after carrying his party in May to a historic victory as the official Opposition.

In Toronto, thousands of people wearing scarves and shirts in the party's telltale orange marched in a parade dedicated to the leader many remembered as a champion for workers' rights.

Toronto Coun. Mike Layton, his sister Sarah, interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel and Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath led off the procession that featured members of various unions, bagpipes, drums and vehicles with balloons.

Mike Layton said his father would have enjoyed the parade and the orange that people were wearing.

"I know he always enjoyed a good parade and a good showing of solidarity with the workers of our city," he said as he walked along the route.

Horwath said the parade was a chance to say thank you "in a large and vocal way" to Layton for his contribution to society.

"Jack was a strong friend of working men and women of Canada," he told the crowd. "He pursued his goals with vision and steadfast determination and I will miss his friendship, his counsel and his enthusiasm for life."

In Ottawa, hundreds marched through the capital's downtown, many carrying banners in Layton's memory.

Federal government employee Chantal Fortin said the public needs to be aware of possible cuts to the public service. She said cuts would mean longer waits for access to taxpayer-funded services.

"Protecting public service is the difference between waiting five minutes to speak to somebody on the phone or waiting a half hour," she said.

As she handed out candy to parade-watchers along the Ottawa, civil servant Amber Miller said fighting back was the theme of her Labour Day.

"We need to fight all the cuts of the Conservatives and protect our public services," she said. "(Canadians) need to start caring and maybe pay more attention because the cuts are affecting everybody, so they need to starting fighting back for public services."

Irene Lanzinger, secretary-treasurer of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said a rally at Robson Square in Vancouver was a celebration "of the men and women who built this provinces, and that is not the CEOs."

B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix said there is a shortage of training in the province in many sectors, including forestry and shipbuilding.

"We can't go out and create the jobs but we can ensure that people have access to the training they need to get the jobs," he said.

Dix said seven of every 20 logs harvested on Vancouver Island are shipped out as raw logs and the province needs to ensure that B.C. resources are kept in the province for B.C. jobs.

In Alberta, labour groups held annual barbecues in Edmonton and Calgary for the unemployed and underemployed, and people lined up for free hotdogs and hamburgers.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, attacked the Alberta government for launching what he called "a secretive, behind-closed-door review of the Alberta Labour Code." He said the review is being done at the request of an anti-union lobby group, which he termed an attack on the labour movement.

"It is also an unfair attempt to get the government to show favouritism to non-union employers over their business competitors who use unionized labour," McGowan said in a news release.

In Saskatchewan, Labour Day brought hope that a strike might be averted by instructors and other staff at the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology.

The Saskatchewan Government Employees Union had threatened that a walkout at the technical school could happen Tuesday, but both sides announced over the weekend that they would sit down with a mediator on Monday for talks.

The federal Conservatives also irritated the labour movement this year by tabling back-to-work legislation in both the Air Canada and Canada Post labour disputes.

"We've got to beat back the Harper attack," chanted a group marching under the banner of graduate students.

The Conservative government has promised to balance the federal budget by 2014 and has asked 68 departments to offer up scenarios for five and 10 per cent reductions to their bottom lines over a three-year period.

Civil servants at the federal Fisheries Department, for example, have been told their budget is being cut by $53 million as managers deal with last year’s Conservative funding freeze in advance of deeper cuts to come.

Unions said in June that Public Works will lose 687 public-service jobs over the next three years. The Bank of Canada, the Environment Department and National Gallery are all under the knife.

Other union leaders said they're also working to stem the widening trend to create casual positions without benefits and pensions for workers.