09/04/2011 11:31 EDT | Updated 11/04/2011 05:12 EDT

Labour Day 2011: What Has Gone Wrong in Canada for Working People?


There was a time in Canada -- not that very long ago -- when a working person could expect to have a family-supporting job throughout their life.

For an honest day's labour, a worker could raise their kids, buy a house, pay off the mortgage, take vacations, have weekends off, help send the kids through college and retire with a modest but liveable pension. Your job was relatively secure and the employer showed loyalty for good work. And employers benefited too, because working families had the income to buy their goods and services. Wherever and at whatever occupation you worked, these were common features for most jobs.

This Labour Day as we celebrate the contributions of working people to build a better Canada, we have to ask: what has gone so wrong in our country?

Today the average family needs two full-time jobs just to get by -- one job just doesn't pay the bills. And a 40-hour work week is often a dream. Even getting a decent job is challenging, with more low-paying, part-time jobs than ever. Keeping your job is also difficult, with the regular recessions our world economy is facing and consequent layoffs. Employer loyalty usually amounts to what's legally required -- and sometimes even those minimums are ignored.

Having more than one or two children is simply too expensive. Post-secondary education costs are exorbitant, yet a post-secondary credential is necessary to find employment that demands high skills and specialized training.

And retirement with dignity and security has been replaced by fear that the golden years will be spent languishing in poverty instead. 1.6 million seniors live on under $16,000 a year -- a sad commentary. Those fortunate to have a workplace pension see it attacked as "too expensive," while most chief executive officers enlarge their own multi-million dollar pensions.

And Canadians with Registered Retirement Savings Plans or other investments saw their value drop 15 per cent in just a week as markets crashed in August, for the fourth time in 20 years.

What happened to the lifestyle most Canadian workers celebrated on Labour Days past?

One answer is that the middle class has suffered through a quarter century of wage stagnation -- where real income after inflation barely increases at all.

The Conference Board of Canada acknowledged that recently in a study which found that in the 33 years between 1976 and 2009, median income increased by just 5.5 per cent - from $45,800 in 1976 to $48,300 in 2009.

Another is that unions -- which help workers gain a fair share through better wages and benefits -- have a lower percentage of members, due to regressive labour laws that make it harder to join a union and easier to contract out unionized work.

In the past, non-union workers also benefitted from union contracts won through collective bargaining -- because employers usually matched those gains to keep employees and avoid organizing drives. Now unionized workers are pressured to match the lower standards of non-union workplaces in a race to the bottom.

It's no accident that wage stagnation for 80 per cent of Canadians and the dramatic transfer of wealth to the few began as unions came under sustained attack. But a big third reason also helps explain the first two -- the seemingly insatiable greed of the super rich. At the same time corporate taxes were cut and business profits went up dramatically, Canadian workers were paying the price. But Canada's richest 20 per cent almost doubled their enormous income difference over the poorest 20 per cent, from $92,300 to $177,500.

Apparently these huge gains at ordinary Canadians' expense are not enough -- corporations continue to clamour for even more tax cuts -- despite no evidence that pandering to business creates jobs or investment.

This Labour Day it's time for not just union members but all Canadians to demand changes. If we don't start standing up for ourselves, we'll take an even bigger fall in the years ahead.

That's why the Canadian Labour Congress has joined with seniors' groups and others to call for significant improvements in the Canada Pension Plan that would eventually double benefits from today's poverty line maximum of $11,500 to a liveable $24,000.

We need to ensure that our children and grandchildren will enjoy an even better life than we did - not one that's worse is so many ways.

That's why Canada first celebrated Labour Day in 1872 -- and why it's just as important today.