2 September 2019

On Labour Day

Labour Day- A day that celebrates the contributions of the labouring classes to our society, by decreeing that no labour shall be done this day, The day came about because of the work of unions and guilds to earn some respect and some appreciation for what they do.
There are many key moments along the way. In Canada, many of those moments were as much the product of political opportunism as they were of union organization. For example, one of the first laws placing limits on the length of the work day - lowering the number of hours from ten to nine- came about as a result of the Printers' Strike. That was a relatively simple affair- the printers and typesetters of the Globe newspaper went on strike. I have my doubts that anything would have come of it, except for one tiny detail: the employer of those printers and typesetters was the founder of the Globe, also founder of the Clear Grit (now Liberal Party) and Father of Confederation George Brown. He fought the demands of the union tooth and nail. His long time political rival, Sir John A. MacDonald, saw this as a perfect opportunity to score some points against the liberal party and to tweak the nose of his old enemy, and legislated the demands of the printers, forcing Brown to accept what he fought against, and making himself and his party look like the Champions of Labour, as opposed to that other party that wanted them to work longer and harder for their daily bread. Did MacDonald actually care about workers? I doubt he cared about them beyond the fact that they had a vote. As I said, it was a chance to score some easy points, so he took it.
I've said it here often enough that I have a love/hate relationship with unions and organized labour. I am deeply grateful for the protections those who have gone before me have won for all workers in Canada, fighting fights long ago at great risk and often great cost to themselves. They fought against the old Protestant mindset that said that the poor were poor mainly for moral failings and general laziness. The old bosses often saw themselves as helping the poor not despite making them work long hours for little pay, but because they made them work long hours for little pay, as it left them little time or extra money to spend on their wickedness.
Back when labour history was covered in my old university days, the professors would invariably bring up the subject of coal mines, their bosses and workers, and the reason for this was simple: coal mining was often about as bad as you could possibly get. If you were a miner, you often lived in a company town, with a company store (which was the only store) a company supplied school, and houses provided by the company. You would rent the house (which was often a windowless shack) from the company at a high price. You could only buy your goods at the store, at about triple the price for the same stuff in a store in a non company town, (incidentally, apparently buying from outside the company store was in some cases a firing offence. Since the company ran the post office as well, they could tell if you were making purchases from the T. Eaton Company). The upshot of all this was that the workers got further and further into debt every month. There were even quite a few cases where the company would stop paying the workers in cash, and instead pay them in scrip- company dollars. After all, since every penny and more they earned went back to the company, why not dispense with cash altogether? Should the father die (which was quite common- and, by the way, mining companies denied that there was such a thing as 'black lung' and sponsored medical studies to demonstrate the healthful benefits of inhaling coal dust) the company would often approach the eldest son and explain that, since his father had died deeply in debt, that debt now passed onto the son, so he had to go down the shaft too. This is of course illegal, but they would only know that if they had been so taught in school. Did I mention the company ran the schools?
Okay, but that was a long time ago. Bosses aren't like that now, are they? I have my doubts. I remember Sam Walton approaching congress repeatedly and requesting that the workers of his company, one of the most profitable in history, be made exempt from minimum wage laws. I remember the tobacco companies denying and also sponsoring studies to claim that smoking is not harmful. So, as I said, I doubt we've managed to breed a better boss.
But while I respect unions and am grateful for them, I do not trust them. Every union to which I have ever belonged or had any dealings has, sooner or later, screwed me over. When I was a TA half the union regularly sold out the other half- and I was in that other half. When I worked at a refinery, I had a two by four with a nine inch spike driven through the head of it shaken in my face while the man holding it told me just what he would do to me with it, while his union brothers stood behind him, nodding their approval. The union I am in now utterly failed to protect me and my co workers, and did nothing to remedy our situation. And so on.
At any rate, happy labour day people. Enjoy what you can.

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