Reflections on Labour Day

Will our children have the luxury of lounging by the lake? Or will they be worrying about where the next pay cheque will come from?

It's Labour Day again - and we all know what that means. It's the last weekend of summer. The last family picnic of the year. The last boat ride around the lake.

The truth is that - despite the name - "labour" is usually the last thing on people's minds as the holiday weekend approaches.

But this year it may be a little more difficult to take the "labour" out of Labour Day. That's because there are currently two major workplace disputes, involving thousands of workers, going on in the province.

As Albertans head out to the lake or the local park, there's a good chance they'll drive by at least one picket line erected by locked out Telus or CBC workers.

These disputes have focused attention on labour issues partly because they touch almost every community in the province. But more importantly, they're getting attention because they reveal a troubling workplace trend - a trend that threatens to take the bloom off Alberta's flourishing economic rose for thousands of workers and their families.

The disturbing trend that I'm talking about is the trend towards less secure employment - and it's at the heart of a growing number of labour disputes.

Despite Alberta's booming economy, low unemployment and relatively high wages, more and more people in the province are working on a temporary or contract basis. The latest figures from Statistics Canada suggest that only about half of working Albertans have jobs that can be described as long-term or stable - down significantly from previous decades.

The benefits of contract and temporary work for employers are obvious - companies save money by not having to shell out for things like pensions and other benefits. In other words, big business gets to have its cake and eat it too. This is what management types mean when they talk about "flexibility."

But the benefits of these so-called "contingent" work arrangements are more difficult to discern for individuals and communities.

Workers with little long-term job security have a much more difficult time putting down roots and making all the transitions that have traditionally characterized middle-class life in Canada. For example, it's more difficult for them to buy a home, start a family, save for their kids' education, plan for retirement or even set money aside for modest family vacations.

And it's not just individuals who are hurt by the insecurity that comes with a growing contract or temporary workforce.

Job insecurity also has negative impacts on communities, local businesses - and even the companies that make use of contract workers themselves. Who wants to "go the extra mile" for an employer that treats you like a Post-it-Note - something to be used and discarded without a second thought?

This is what the locked-out Telus and CBC workers mean when they talk about job security being their hill to die on.

They're not asking for "jobs for life" as some critics have claimed. They recognize that the economy rises and falls and that lay offs are sometimes inevitable. All they're saying is that if a company is profitable and if it has work that needs to be done, then why not make as many of those jobs permanent as possible?

Of course, the problem of insecure jobs is not restricted to Alberta - it's a phenomenon that's been sweeping the country and, indeed, the world.

But too many companies have been getting a free ride in the public and the press when they characterize traditional permanent jobs with benefits as "old style" and argue that contracting out is inevitable.

This new age management mantra wears particularly thin here in Alberta in 2005 where, thanks to our red hot economy, most firms can clearly afford to do better by their employees.

Before we let corporations like Telus and the CBC get away shedding their obligations to their workers, Albertans and Canadians need to ask: is the kind of society we really want?

Do we want a society where real careers disappear, to be replaced by a string of temporary jobs?

Do we want a society where pensions, health benefits and even vacations become a distant memory for most people?

Do we want a society were a small group of "core" employees have security, while the majority of working families watch their middle class dream slip further and further away?

That's the issue on picket lines around the province this summer - and it's the reality that we may sleepwalk into if citizens and policy makers don't start questioning the desirability of so-called contingent labour force strategies.

Maybe what's needed are stronger labour laws to level the playing field between management and labour. Or maybe we should be talking about portable pensions and benefits that can follow workers from job to job.

Finding answers won't be easy - but it's certainly a debate worth having.

If we don't start asking tough questions - and if simply continue deferring to the wisdom of Corporate Canada - then I worry that future Labour Days may look a lot different from the ones we currently enjoy. Instead of lounging by the lake, you may be spending the weekend in you cramped apartment scanning the papers for your next temporary job.

Let's hope it doesn't come to that - and let's hope that when it comes to Labour Day our children can afford to focus on water skiing and barbeques instead of worrying about where their next pay cheque might come from.

by Gil McGowan
AFL President
September 2006

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