Labour Day barbecue addresses state of the union(s)

Matt Gardner
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The social benefits of unions were front and centre on Monday at the annual Labour Day barbecue in Kinsmen Park organized by the Prince Albert and District Labour Council (PADLC).

While those at the park enjoyed hamburgers and hotdogs alongside live entertainment from local band Black Rain, the pro-labour message of the gathering was never far away.

In a brief address to the crowd, PADLC president Craig Thebaud offered a lengthy list of the historical gains fought for by unionized workers such as decent wages, safer work environments, protection from discrimination and harassment and benefits such as parental leave, pensions and paid vacations.

“Unions have always worked for better laws and public services, including Medicare in the 1950s, maternity leave in the 1970s, same-sex marriage in the 1990s and a better Canada Pension Plan today,” Thebaud said.

“If we want a healthy middle class, we need strong unions. We know that when we act together, everyone benefits.”

Changing public perception of unions is currently a central focus of the PADLC, which all local unions are affiliated to.

Thebaud said that there is “a general misconception out there of what unions do,” which events such as the barbecue aim to correct.

“A lot of what unions do is actually beyond their own personal interests,” he noted.

“Unions often participate in lots of charity fundraising -- whether it’s encouraging their members to give or hosting different kinds of fundraisers for charity themselves. They often participate in advocating for legislation changes and social policy changes that go well beyond their own members’ personal interests.”

Firefighters Association Local 510 president Lloyd Zwack echoed Thebaud’s sentiments.

Pointing to think tanks and interest groups where “their job is to paint labour in a certain view,” Zwack argued for the importance of education in combating such perceptions.

“Events like today, other events within our community, I think it goes a long way in showing the community what labour’s all about, what we represent, what we can do, and I think it’s a positive,” he said.

Many of the city’s unionized workers travel outside of Prince Albert to work, with Thebaud offering the examples of the Cameco mine site, the tar sands and construction jobs throughout Saskatchewan.

The city itself has a large public sector contingent that is heavily unionized -- as was its grocery sector, though Thebaud acknowledged the loss incurred by the recent closure of the local Sobeys store.

One thorn in the side of the P.A. labour movement has been ongoing privatization efforts by the provincial government, with the most notable recent example being the contracting out of Saskatchewan’s health system laundry to the Alberta-based company K-Bro Linens Systems.

A lot of what unions do is actually beyond their own personal interests. Craig Thebaud

The agreement between K-Bro and 3sHealth may up to 100 jobs at risk at North Sask Laundry in Prince Albert. Zwack strongly criticized the move toward privatization.

“Regarding North Sask Laundry -- absolutely, we're opposed to having good quality jobs move to Alberta for a reason,” he said.

“These good jobs we think should be in Prince Albert. These people make a living, (support) their families, they own houses here, they support the businesses right from the dentist to the grocery store -- and that’s wages that are going to be lost in our city.”

A similar situation is facing local prison food service workers after Regina announced in January that it had put out a request for proposals to contract out food service delivery in provincial prisons.

The government has not yet made a decision, but Thebaud noted that the PADLC would be “disappointed” if the government opted for privatization.

“It’s obviously going to result in lower wages for workers, which is not good for the Prince Albert community or the Prince Albert economy,” he said.

“Businesses in Prince Albert are relying on people who make decent wages to shop at their businesses and participate in services that they sell -- and if people don’t have the money, if it all goes to rent, there’s not a lot left over for shopping at businesses and whatnot.”

Looking ahead, the PADLC leadership plans to continue focusing on its long-term efforts to counter what Thebaud called “the negative stuff people often hear from special interest groups” about unions -- most notably through its participation in the national Fairness Works campaign organized by the Canadian Labour Congress.

Meanwhile, local firefighters -- who have been unionized for approximately 75 years -- will be sitting down at the end of the year to negotiate a new collective agreement.

Though the struggles of unions in different sectors may appear separate, Zwack noted the sense of solidarity that unites different labour organizations in the city.

“We like to know what’s going on with each other, support each other in each other’s events and endeavours,” Zwack said.

He added, “It’s just good that we have a strong labour voice in the city of Prince Albert.”

Organizations: Medicare, Association Local, Cameco Sobeys Canadian Labour Congress

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Alberta

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