Monday, September 03, 2007

Happy Labour Day

Checking in on the American Labour movement. The drumbeat of negative stories about labour trends can obscure small but real signs of progress.

In Oregon and across the country, we are seeing fresh examples of how the union movement is pressing the case for moral capitalism and a renegotiated social contract.

There has been a quiet revolution among home health care and child care workers who care for the very young and the very old, two of our most vulnerable populations. Until they became union members, they were paid meagerly and granted minimal social respect.

Through unionization and collective bargaining, these workers are now leading much more dignified lives, posing basic questions about our social priorities, and are becoming models for engaged citizenship.

A sophisticated, union-led campaign has prompted more and more Americans to ask if Wal-Mart's employment and social practices reflect American values and represent the kind of corporate behavior that serves the public good.

Following Oregon's lead, union-backed measures to raise the minimum wage triumphed in six states in 2006, underscoring public support for a moral capitalism that would provide workers with a minimum standard of sustenance and security.

And the growing attention being paid to developing programs and policies that strengthen families by granting workers more paid leave represents an emerging issue that has wide social appeal and that the union movement is uniquely qualified to lead.

Although language and values are critical, strength and power also are necessary if the union movement is to spearhead an effective drive for moral capitalism. As public intellectual Walter Lippmann once observed: "The Golden Rule works best among equals."

In Canada where the whole idea of Labour Day originated, we have the same mix of good news and bad. We got Supreme Court vindication of the right to organize, but we also now have an inter-provincial corporate bill of rights masquerading as a trade deal. At least we do in BC and Alberta.

The recent Fraser Institute mash note to Alberta's bracing contempt for its workers was a reminder of how far we have to go here, but the tide seems to be turning as we settle in for a long stretch of a bull market for workers rights. The most simple of market concepts is on the side of Alberta workers now: Scarcity increases value.

We came heartbreakingly close to getting an anti-scab bill through parliament. It would have only applied to workers in federally regulated industries and contrary to self-styled economic right winger Stephane Dion's spin when he killed it, would have in no way threatened essential services. Canadian Labour needs to remember this act of betrayal going forward. We need to remember who our friends are and who they aren't.

If you can this year, stop at a picket line and shake hands with the people on it. Bring them some coffee or a box of Timmies, or just stop to tell them you're with them. I've been on the receiving end of that kind of unsolicited support and it makes a difference.

The Toronto Star has a Labour Day Quiz.

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