Collective bargaining rights have come under attack in recent years as all levels of government have slashed or frozen wages and benefits for public sector workers. Back-to-work legislation has become an increasingly common tool in the arsenal of governments aiming to crush strikes.
“I think the challenge for the labour movement today is going to be on how to reinvent ourselves to make ourselves relevant again, relevant to this day and age,” Canadian Labour Congress regional representative Darla Leard said.
“I think you hear kind of from the other side, from people that … I won’t go as far to say anti-union, but they certainly don’t subscribe to union ideology … that we’re outdated and not relevant anymore, and I would say the exact opposite. If ever there was a time that a worker needed a union, it’s now.”
This Labour Day, Saskatchewan officially became the province with the lowest minimum wage in Canada. Speakers at the barbecue planned to highlight the issue.
“That’ll be a big topic,” Labour Council president Faye Hill said. “It’s a topic throughout all Saskatchewan. And why Saskatchewan? I mean, something should be done.”
Concessions to employers have become more frequent in recent decades as public discourse veered to the right. The question of how unions can fight back in an age of austerity will become increasingly relevant to Saskatchewan workers as Premier Brad Wall’s proposed provincial labour review moves forward.
“Let’s be clear,” Leard said. “We’ve got a government here provincially that has declared war on labour, and there’s no doubt about it. It’s like, they still have yet to identify the problem … I guess the question is, what’s broken?
“It is oozing with Brad Wall’s agenda to make sure that he’s fulfilled all of his campaign promises to all of his right-wing buddies, and so that’s what you’re seeing, plus his absolute hatred since the (former premier Grant) Devine years … of labour and labour unions.”
Leard said the CLC was promoting what she called the “union advantage” this Labour Day — that higher wages give communities more disposable income. Similar barbecues were happening across the country, and the people who helped run them were all volunteers.
I think you hear kind of from the other side ... that we’re outdated and not relevant anymore, and I would say the exact opposite. If ever there was a time that a worker needed a union, it’s now. - Darla Leard
“None of these people are paid to be here and to come out on their long weekend and do this,” Leard said. “They do this because they realize and they understand that … not only do they work here, but they live here. Their kids go to that Kinsmen Park pool right there. They go to utilize the civic centres, they shop at the local Co-op store and all of that. So that’s the advantage. The union advantage is just like, why would we drive down wages? Who would that benefit? Would that benefit a community like Prince Albert to drive down wages?”
The fact that unions have been on the defensive in recent decades raises the question of whether a more militant attitude, reminiscent of the labour movement’s early days, might be warranted. Leard believed there was a time for strikes and banners, but that the union’s current goal is engaging members and framing the issues in its terms.
Still, she noted the stark contrast between declining wages for workers while banks post record profits.
“We’re so conditioned to think, “Oh, that’s a good thing,’” Leard said. “It’s not good! It’s like as we’re driving wages down and we’re creating this class-ist kind of society, where the rich are getting richer and then that 1 per cent you talk about … It’s just this perpetuating cycle that will never end and it’s … spiraling downward.”
At the barbecue itself, hard economic questions took a backseat to fun in the sun. Children played on an inflatable castle and visitors enjoyed hamburgers, hotdogs, cold drinks and classic rock tunes covered by the band Constant Reminder.
“I think we’re probably going to run out of food,” Hill said. “I think it’s great for the day, and I hope in the years to come this continues.”