This weekend, we enjoy the fruits of Labour Days past

Labour Day weekend. The unofficial end to summer and a holiday purported to recognize the contribution of workers. It also heralds a back-to-school season that will be marked, as is often the case, by some labour unrest on the part of teachers’ unions.

Canadians by and large hate public sector unions, the scourge of taxpayers saddled with overpaid, underworked and unappreciative workers who help saddle the country with debt while providing little or nothing in return.

Or so the sentiment goes.

Many of the same people equate private sector unions with organized crime or lazy, overpaid workers who make inferior products no one wants to buy.

Or so the sentiment goes.

The reality is more nuanced, of course. But there’s no denying that government unions exercise too much political influence at great cost to the economy even as private sector unions wane and the middle class dream fades away for that majority of Canadians who don’t have government jobs.

The first Monday in September is supposed to mark the accomplishments and contributions of workers, particularly those in unions. We used to have parades of a particularly political bent. Now it’s all about spending some time at the cottage.

We’ve come a long way from the early labour movement and protests, which a century ago was focused on the well-being of workers and farmers (the country was much more agrarian then). Though we’re heading into the Labour Day weekend, most Canadians are far removed from the struggle that gave them such things as statutory holidays, weekends and the 40-hour workweek – that much of that is under attack today has yet to resonate the way it did decades ago.

In fact, unionization rates have been dropping steadily for years, at least in the private sector, largely due to corporate propaganda and the paying off of politicians. Not un-coincidentally, pay, benefits and pensions have also been dropping. The only exception is the heavily unionized – arguably unnecessary – public sector, which relies on compliant bureaucrats and politicians.

Still, union organizers remind us that is was those tough fights that won today’s workers many of the benefits they take for granted. Chances are if you’ve got Monday off – and there are many of us who will be working – you’ll be paid for the holiday. That wasn’t always the case. Even though Labour Day became a statutory holiday in 1894, it wasn’t until 1966 that the Canadian government legislated that holidays be paid.

Many of us, however, are reveling in a certain amount of schadenfreude over the plight of union workers. Unions have a poor reputation, and we take some delight in watching them falter.

The fact is, though, that you can thank the labour movement, and unions in particular, for many of the employee benefits we enjoy today, including a five-day workweek, holidays, vacation time, benefits, pension, and safety measures.  Much of what was gained by long struggle is being clawed back now, with nary a whimper for a large segment of the population that stands to lose. Increasingly, the light bulb is going on associating attacks on labour with the growing income inequality that even some of the modern-day robber barons have noticed.

Something to ponder while you’re enjoying your Labour Day weekend.

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