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A Labour Day commitment to union and community

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Fire up the barbeque, Labour Day has arrived. Celebrated across the country, the first Monday in September is often thought of as the last one before kids go back to school and the long, hot days of summer turn to autumn.

Labour Day is more than just the unofficial end to summer. The holiday was created to recognize the contribution that working people have made to the Canadian way of life. The union movement built a large part of society, both in terms of the way people get paid and in terms of people's rights. This includes the right to fair wages, safe working conditions and compensation for injury, and equitable labour relations.

Lots of people lost their lives to establish the right to refuse unsafe work and the right to be treated fairly, without discrimination. That is why working people have reason to be proud.

So why do people still join unions in 2014?  The reasons aren’t much different than they were back in the late 1800s. People join because they want to ensure their health and safety is protected at work. They want to be treated fairly. That is exactly what unions have delivered. Unions mean better pay, less accidents at work, higher productivity and a healthier economy.

This is why the right wing, last seen in Ontario politics under Tim Hudak, is only too willing to confiscate those rights. Even the Liberals, while appearing to be kinder and gentler, have plans that will weaken public sector workers and services. Privatization and outsourcing are their weapons of choice!

Thanks to push back by thousands of OPSEU members the Hudak threat was beaten back – at least for the moment. Should it rear its head again, these OPSEU members and their community friends will fight to preserve public services from the OPS to the smallest community agency.

We must stand for principles. We are empowered by a record of success. The reason Labour Day is celebrated is one example. It started with the Toronto Typographical Union and the "Nine-Hour Movement.”  Take a moment to read about their strike and the changes in labour law that it triggered on March 25, 1872. The celebration of Labour Day was officially recognized on July 23, 1894 by the federal government, under Prime Minister John Thompson.

But that was then and this is now. OPSEU members will build on the past. And make no mistake, there are many challenges ahead. Let’s look at just a few.

Today in Ontario we face a council created by the Wynne government prior to the election and chaired by a retired banker named Ed Clarke. His mandate, in part, was set out in government media release:

“Recommend ways to improve the efficiency and optimize the full value of Hydro One, Ontario Power Generation, and the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. The Council will examine how to get the most out of key government assets to generate better returns and revenues for Ontarians. They will consider various options to generate better returns and revenues to maximize the value of these government business enterprises to the province, including such measures as efficient governance, growth strategies, corporate reorganization, mergers, acquisitions, public-private partnerships, etc.”

Fancy words aside, this sounds like trouble. OPSEU will respond with simple but concrete ideas. From IT outsourcing to the privatization of the LCBO, OPSEU members stand for public services not private sector profit.

Today, at bargaining tables, we face employers who want to roll back or freeze rights and benefits. Instead of agreeing, OPSEU members will fight for improvements. The OPS is one place where wage improvements have lagged behind the private sector. As we head into bargaining, this can change.

Community agencies and services are other examples of public sector work that too many OPSEU members provide at Walmart-style wage levels. OPSEU will stand with its members for better wages and benefits in these sectors. Government promises for personal service workers (PSWs) and others must expand to cover more workers and provide wider benefits.

We know that workplace struggles are not restricted to the workplace. They must embrace the communities in which we live, work and play. In many cases the government itself has to be held responsible for the cuts and caps that seem to be such a part of their deficit reduction strategy.

This is the time to educate, agitate and organize. Our kind of action is based on these very principles.

As we look back at the history of Labour Day let us reinforce the role of the worker, both from the past and looking to the future.

“OPSEU – Forward Together” was the slogan we adopted to help guide our journey. Today we remain “Ontario’s Union for Changing Times.”  And, again, together — our members, our elected leaders and our staff – stand united to help forge a better tomorrow for all.

Have a great Labour Day 2014 with your friends, family and community. Feel pride in the past while staying active and energized for the challenges ahead.

Warren (Smokey) Thomas
President, Ontario Public Service Employees Union

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